Air Quality Forecasts See Future in Space

Dec 13, 2007
Air Quality Forecasts See Future in Space
A preliminary forecast by Europe´s GEMS project predicts regions expected to have elevated levels of aerosols (yellow and red) on Dec. 5, 2007. Click image for enlargement. Credit: Jean-Jacques Morcrette/ECMWF

Weather broadcasts have long been a staple for people planning their day. Now with the help of NASA satellites, researchers are working to broaden daily forecasts to include predictions of air quality, a feat that is becoming reality in some parts of the world.

Some scientists predict that an operational system of routine, global forecasts of air pollution near the ground, where it affects human health, is only a few years away. Such a system could prove useful in efforts to improve air quality, assess the effectiveness of environmental regulations and address the challenge of climate change. Advances in air quality monitoring and forecasts are being discussed this week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

"Regional modeling is already getting quite meaningful," says Richard Engelen of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading, United Kingdom. He notes that air quality forecasts are now possible up to a few days in advance in Europe where there has been a concerted effort to combine atmospheric composition data from satellites and ground stations into the existing backbone of weather forecast computer models.

The European project – the Global and Regional Earth-system (Atmosphere) Monitoring Using Satellite and In-Situ Data project – is currently in the experimental stage. In the United States, planning for the application of satellite data in regional air quality forecast model is underway at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But for forecasts to become more accurate and global, researchers need more and better observations, Engelen says. That's where NASA satellites are helping to fill in the gaps.

"To really do an accurate job of forecasting air quality, you have to know what pollution is coming in from upwind," says Kenneth Pickering of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., who studies the chemistry and movement of gases through the atmosphere.

For example, a recent study conducted by researchers from NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., used satellite instruments to look at air quality in Houston, Texas, a city with major air quality problems. Using data from two instruments on NASA's Aura satellite, researchers found that not all of Houston's pollution was locally caused and there was significant long-range transport from the Midwest and Ohio Valley. "Although the finding was made possible by a computer model, it was greatly aided by the Aura satellite data," Pickering says.

Researchers at centers including NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., are also experimenting with blending satellite ozone data with the output from computer models to continuously improve a forecast's accuracy.

NASA satellites are helping researchers evaluate the Clean Air Interstate Rule instituted in 2005 by the EPA. The rule calls for eastern U.S. power plants to cut sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by 73 and 60 percent, respectively, by 2018. Coal burning plants emit plumes containing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, where they undergo chemical reactions and form aerosol particles that lead to adverse health impacts, degrade visibility and can influence Earth's climate. These aerosols are usually transported by wind away from their source to distant regions. Satellite instruments, as well as models and other information sources, allow researchers to create a history describing how much aerosol is transported and where, helping them to evaluate the rule.

"Satellites add considerable vertical and horizontal spatial detail, enabling a more scientifically sound way of understanding whether or not programs are making progress in reducing air pollution in the long term," says Rich Scheffe of the EPA in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Satellite data still pose challenges, however, and researchers are trying to find ways to tease out specific information, such as how much of each gas exists at a specific altitude. This is a particularly challenging measurement to make in the air closest to Earth’s surface, where the information matters most relevant for air quality regulations. More research is needed to determine the value of the current data and to develop improved sensors for future satellites, Pickering says.

The advances in forecasting air quality are happening fast, spurred in part by concern about global warming. At Earth's surface, warmer temperatures can accelerate the reaction between chemicals in the air that form ozone. "The combination of the increase of transported air pollution and the interaction of climate change and air quality really puts a greater premium on satellite imagery for air quality applications," Scheffe says.

Source: by Kathryn Hansen, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Explore further: New study outlines 'water world' theory of life's origins

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA simulation portrays ozone intrusions from aloft

Apr 10, 2014

(Phys.org) —Outdoor enthusiasts in Colorado's Front Range are occasionally rewarded with remarkable visibility brought about by dry, clear air and wind. But it's what people in the mountainous U.S. West ...

Climate change as a matter of public health

Apr 08, 2014

For a long time people perceived climate change as an environmental issue–the concern of environmentalists, the concern of a few. It was reframed as a justice issue at the turn of the 21st century, when ...

Monitoring air quality takes next step

Mar 31, 2014

With air pollution linked to millions of deaths around the world, it has never been more important to monitor the air we breathe. Today marks a significant step forward as a deal is secured to build a crucial ...

NASA image: Agricultural fires across Sierra Leone

Mar 25, 2014

Marked in red, hundreds of land use fires burn in the fields across Sierra Leone. Most fires in this region are deliberately set for a variety of reasons, including slash and burn agriculture. When a plot ...

Recommended for you

New study outlines 'water world' theory of life's origins

2 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Life took root more than four billion years ago on our nascent Earth, a wetter and harsher place than now, bathed in sizzling ultraviolet rays. What started out as simple cells ultimately transformed ...

Agriculture's growing effects on rain

22 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Increased agricultural activity is a rain taker, not a rain maker, according to researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and their collaborators at the University of California Los ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

Tech giants look to skies to spread Internet

The shortest path to the Internet for some remote corners of the world may be through the skies. That is the message from US tech giants seeking to spread the online gospel to hard-to-reach regions.

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

(Phys.org) —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Wireless industry makes anti-theft commitment

A trade group for wireless providers said Tuesday that the biggest mobile device manufacturers and carriers will soon put anti-theft tools on the gadgets to try to deter rampant smartphone theft.