Climbing more than 5200 metres above sea level – close to La Paz is where atmospheric research is at its highest
Currently in Bolivia, at the highest atmospheric research station in the world, there is a group of scientists working hard, sometimes almost out of breath. The location, project, and equipment are unique. Since end of April 2018, after an intense instrumental setup period, they are now fully operational.

With this study in South America researchers from the University of Helsinki expect to have a better understanding on how aerosols and new particles are formed in remote high places. They want to know if the aerosols that are affecting the clouds and the climate are formed by anthropogenic activity in the city of La Paz area or by vapours emitted by the Amazon forest that are then transported up in the mountain.

Are aerosols and new particles formed in remote high place a mixture of natural and anthropogenic activity?

­“My expectation is that we will find a mixture between anthropogenic and natural activity but of course, for the moment, it’s all open. Measurements are so new that we can expect anything. Just need to open our mind and be ready to any kind of results,” says researcher Federico Bianchi, leader of the group working in Bolivia.

Field measurements where high altitude can become a big problem

The atmosphere scientists are conducting field measurements at Chacaltaya GAW station, a Global Atmosphere Watch station measuring many parameters permanently. ­ – A very good location for the kind of study the Finnish group is performing, right in between the Andes altiplano and the Amazon forest in Bolivia.

The station is 5240 metres above the sea level and also the highest atmospheric laboratory in the world. It is located almost at the top of the Chacaltaya mountain, a 90 minutes drive from La Paz, the capital of Bolivia.

­“Altitude can definitely be a big problem due to the low oxygen concentration. We have carried up to 2000 kilos of instrumentation with 4 wheels drive and by hand with the help of the local people,” describes Bianchi their work.

“We face difficulties in breathing, walking, carrying instruments and, of course, thinking. Your heart rate can be quite high for no reason and also during night you can wake up with a feeling of missing air,” he says.

To tackle the problems that follow the altitude the local people use coca leave, making a tea with it or chew it. ­– Something the scientists need to skip altogether.

Mass spectrometers are advanced instrumentation from Helsinki

Beside some monitoring permanent measurements run by the Chacaltaya GAW station, the University of Helsinki is contributing with advanced mass spectrometers with a record time of use: 6 months, from December 2017 to May 2018.

The instruments the researchers use are really fragile and up till now they have been used only for “normal” field measurements or in laboratory experiments. They were developed in 2010 at the University of Helsinki, and have been commercially available for only a few years.

­“The project is unique because of the combination between the “crazy" locations and the state-of-the art instrumentations,”Federico Bianchi says.

It is mainly lead by researchers at the Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research, INAR, from the University of Helsinki, in collaboration with the University of Stockholm and the local University, the Universidad Mayor de San Andres.

Spending mountain time off-duty

The scientists from Italy, Switzerland, China, Bolivia, Finland, France, Germany, Austria work with mainly local people from University but also local workers like drivers, custodians as well as local master and bachelor students.

But what do they do when off-duty?

“Oh, in our free time we have climbed a mountain of 6000 metres, and, of course, we interact a lot with the local community,” Bianchi says.

Climate Festival in Helsinki on May, 25th

Some of the group’s first results will be presented in Helsinki, on Friday, May the 25th during the Climate Festival arranged by INAR. This event at Tiedekulma is for the general public and everybody is most welcome!

Image texts:
Mount Chacaltaya and the Chacaltaya GAW station
Selfie, Federico Bianchi and Qiaozhi Zha from the University of Helsinki and Claudia Mohr from Stockholm University
Images: copyright Federico Bianchi

For more:
Facebook page “Atmospheric scientist around the world” with interesting photos and videos and recent videos

Contact info:
Federico Bianchi,, +358 50 318 8157, @Atmosfede

Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research (INAR) is a multi- and interdisciplinary research unit based in physics, chemistry, meteorology, forest sciences, environmental sciences and social sciences in the University of Helsinki. It was founded in the beginning of 2018 and led by Professor Markku Kulmala.

Find more about The Chacaltaya GAW Station here: