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Air quality study focuses on New England

Summer -- it's that lazy, hazy time of year, and in some areas of the country, the emphasis is on the hazy with sky-rocketing temperatures, ozone alerts, and poor air quality




Fig. 1: NOAA's research vessel Ronald H. Brown
Fig. 2: DOE's G-1 Gulfstream research aircraft

July 9, 2002--Summer--it's that lazy, hazy time of year, and in some areas of the country, the emphasis is on the hazy with sky-rocketing temperatures, ozone alerts, and poor air quality.

In a multi-organization effort to identify why the Northeastern United States has some of the worst air quality in the country, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) largest research vessel, Ronald H. Brown, will be based in New England waters this summer to monitor air pollutants and their transport through the region.

"With the combined capabilities of several NOAA research laboratories and our university colleagues, we have assembled the most complete package of atmospheric gas and particle sampling instrumentation ever deployed aboard Ronald H. Brown," said Tim Bates from NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. "These measurements should give us a much better understanding of the transport and transformation of pollutants in this region."

The July to August New England Air Quality Study, partially initiated by the NOAA-funded Atmospheric Investigation, Regional Modeling, Analysis and Prediction (AIRMAP) project, involves more than 20 partner institutions. In addition to the heavily instrumented ship, data also will be collected from a G-1 Gulfstream research aircraft operated by the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) with instruments developed at both PNNL and DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Robert Talbot, Director of the AIRMAP Cooperative Institute and Professor of Earth Science at the University of New Hampshire's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space, said, "This is a rare opportunity. You don't get a large research vessel situated off the coast like this very often, because we don't tend to study our own pollution very much."

The New England Air Quality Study will enhance current research looking at New England's own air quality through the AIRMAP project. For the past three years, AIRMAP has been taking pollutant measurements from monitoring stations located in three rural sites in New Hampshire. The ship and plane will be used as additional monitoring sites, offering an advantage because they move from place to place.

"We have been sitting in a stationary area measuring what is coming to us," said Talbot of the AIRMAP project. "With the ship, aircraft, and additional ground instrumentation, we'll be able to go upwind and tell what is in the air coming our way."

According to Peter Daum, the lead investigator from Brookhaven, "The plane has the ability to sample over a broad range of distances and can look vertically in the atmosphere so we can understand how these pollutants are distributed in space and how they relate to the sources of these pollutants."

Understanding what's in the air that is transported to New England is essential to understanding the entire picture of air pollution in the region. By collecting measurements from aircraft flying directly over pollutant sources, the scientists will learn about what is in the air coming from outside the region, such as from the Midwest or Mid-Atlantic states and from urban areas such as Boston and New York.

"A review of air pollution episodes in New England suggests that blobs of polluted air often lurk in the Gulf of Maine during the summer months, causing high pollution levels in coastal areas," says Jim Meagher, from NOAA's Aeronomy Laboratory. "The sophisticated instrumentation on board NOAA's research vessel Ronald H. Brown, gives us just the tools we need to better understand the sources and fate of this pollution."

Information gathered from the ship will be extremely helpful for understanding the sea breeze effect, which can change the chemistry of the air and potentially make it less polluted. According to Talbot, this effect occurs when "air flows inland due to heating of air over land in the summertime and then gets pushed back out to the sea when cooling occurs later in the day." The only way to determine the sea breeze effect is to monitor the air off the coast at different locations, which is simplified by using a mobile research platform such as a ship.

The New England Air Quality Study will be a very visible study involving instrumentation and experiment stations set up throughout the New Hampshire seacoast region. The Ronald H. Brown, due to its massive size, will be visible off the coast and residents and visitors might also notice the research plane flying overhead.

In addition, NOAA's Environmental Technology Laboratory will set up a Doppler lidar, which employs optical radar techniques to observe the sea breeze, at Rye Harbor State Park. The equipment trailer will be plainly seen by drivers on Route 1A in Rye. An array of seven integrated wind profiler systems will be deployed at various sites in New York and New England. These systems, which measure wind and temperature, will help to document the transport of pollution into and out of the Northeast.

Many universities and institutes are making use of this rare opportunity to experiment with these large research platforms while they are in New England. Researchers from the University of California-LA are measuring the concentration of pollutant gases in downtown Boston, a University of Virginia experiment is looking at aerosols and gases from the ship, and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology is researching the exchange of gases between the ocean and the atmosphere. AIRMAP is collaborating with the NH Department of Environmental Services, Harvard Forest, SUNY-Albany and other groups on this project.

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--by Barbara McGehan and Amy Seif

 

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