Public Release: 

Research priorities for the field of atmospheric chemistry -- new report

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

WASHINGTON - Increasing energy demands and expanding industrial and agricultural activities worldwide are changing the composition of the atmosphere and contributing to major global challenges like climate change and air pollution. The study of atmospheric chemistry plays a key role in understanding and responding to these challenges, and research in this field has been successful in guiding policies to improve air quality in urban areas and reduce acid rain and stratospheric ozone depletion. To advance the understanding of atmospheric chemistry and improve its research infrastructure, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine proposes priorities and strategic steps for the field in the next decade.

Atmospheric chemistry explores the chemical composition of the atmosphere, sources of gases and particles, and fundamental chemical transformations in the atmosphere, and applies this knowledge to analyze how the composition of air responds to changing human and natural inputs. Over the past three decades, the understanding and investigation of atmospheric chemistry through field work, theory, laboratory experiments, and modeling have improved tremendously. This report addresses the rationale and continuing need for a comprehensive and broadly based research program in atmospheric chemistry.

"We are seeing a deliberate shift in the field of atmospheric chemistry," said Robert Duce, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Oceanography and Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University and co-chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report. "The field must fully embrace its dual role - observing, learning, and discovering for the sake of fundamentally understanding the Earth system and its underlying chemical, physical and biological processes, while also making major contributions to addressing those challenges that directly affect society."

One of the major goals for the field, the report says, is to anticipate and prepare for environmental challenges rather than just reacting to them. The report recommends the development of an effective predictive capability as a top priority for the atmospheric chemistry community - drawing information from data and utilizing it to anticipate environmental changes. This predictive capability can provide foresight into the consequences of rapid changes in the Earth system, and will help in preparation and decision making.

"Atmospheric chemistry research alone will not solve the challenges of global climate change or the impacts of air pollution on human and ecosystem health, but these challenges will not be solved without the knowledge that comes from this research," said Barbara J. Finlayson-Pitts, professor of chemistry at University of California, Irvine, and co-chair of the committee.

The committee developed the research agenda by gathering input from academia, government, and the private sector through a series of town hall meetings and an online portal. The research priorities identified by the committee are:

  • Advance knowledge of the distribution, reactions, and lifetimes of gases and particles
    Predictive capability starts with a fundamental understanding of the atmospheric chemistry occurring now. Advances in atmospheric chemistry experiments, theory, modeling, and observations will enable researchers to identify and begin to narrow gaps in predictive capability and to resolve discrepancies in the understanding of atmospheric composition and chemical reactions.

  • Quantify emission and deposition processes
    More research is needed to reduce uncertainties about emissions from known sources, to better constrain emissions of poorly understood constituents like bioparticles, and to understand deposition processes that remove reactive species such as ozone.

  • Advance integration of atmospheric chemistry within climate and weather models
    Greenhouse gases and atmospheric particles affect Earth's heat budget, weather patterns, and precipitation. The atmospheric chemistry community should enhance interactions with the climate and weather research communities to better incorporate atmospheric composition into dynamical models.

  • Study the atmospheric chemistry of gases and particles most deleterious to human health
    Air pollution is estimated to cause 1 out of 8 premature deaths worldwide. However, the chemical composition of the gases and particles that cause these various effects and the potential interactions among them are not well-understood. Advanced atmospheric chemistry research techniques are necessary to understand the identities, sources, and fates of the air pollutants that negatively affect human health.

  • Understand biogeochemical feedbacks between the atmosphere and ecosystems
    Biogeochemical cycles control the elements that are necessary for life and connect chemistry in the atmosphere with oceans, the solid earth, and the terrestrial and marine biospheres. New laboratory and field studies are needed to characterize the atmospheric chemistry processes involved in these cycles for future use in predictive models.

The committee made specific recommendations for the National Science Foundation's Atmospheric Chemistry program to help support research for the next decade and enable the report's proposed research priorities in the report to move forward, recognizing likely budgetary restraints. The recommendations include developing tools such as new laboratory and analytical instrumentation to accomplish scientific goals, creating data archiving systems, and improving opportunities for interdisciplinary work. The report also recommends that the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and NSF develop and implement a strategy to make NCAR a vibrant and complementary partner within the atmospheric chemistry community.


The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit A roster follows.

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Copies of The Future of Atmospheric Chemistry Research: Remembering Yesterday, Understanding Today, Anticipating Tomorrow are available at or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate

Committee on the Future of Atmospheric Chemistry Research

Robert A. Duce (co-chair)
Distinguished Professor
Departments of Oceanography and Atmospheric Sciences
Texas A&M University
College Station

Barbara J. Finlayson-Pitts* (co-chair)
Professor of Chemistry
Department of Chemistry
University of California

Tami Bond
Assistant Professor and Nauman Faculty Scholar
University of Illinois

William H. Brune
Distinguished Professor of Meteorology
Department of Meteorology
Pennsylvania State University
University Park

Annmarie Carlton
Assistant Professor
Department of Environmental Sciences
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
New Brunswick

Allen H. Goldstein
Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
University of California

Colette Heald
Associate Professor
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Scott C. Herndon
Physical Chemist and Principal Scientist
Aerodyne Research Inc.
Billerica, Mass.

Dylan Jones
Associate Professor
Department of Physics
University of Toronto

Athanasios Nenes
Georgia Institute of Technology

Kimberly A. Prather
Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla

Michael J. Prather
Fred Kavil Chair and Professor
Department of Earth System Science
University of California

Allison Steiner
Associate Professor
Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Christine Wiedinmyer
Scientist III
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colo.

Lei Zhu
Research Scientist
Wadsworth Center
Department of Environmental Health Sciences
New York State Department of Health


Edward Dunlea
Study Director

*Member, National Academy of Sciences

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