Air Quality & Pollution

Dino-killing asteroid could have thrust Earth into two years of darkness

BOULDER, Colo. — Tremendous amounts of soot, lofted into the air from global wildfires following a massive asteroid strike 66 million years ago, would have plunged Earth into darkness for nearly two years, new research finds. This would have shut down photosynthesis, drastically cooled the planet, and contributed to the mass extinction that marked the end of the age of dinosaurs.These new details about how the climate could have dramatically changed following the impact of a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid will be published Aug. 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) with support from NASA and the University of Colorado Boulder, used a world-class computer model to paint a rich picture of how Earth’s conditions might have looked at the end of the Cretaceous Period, information that paleobiologists may be able to use to better understand why some species died, especially in the oceans, while others survived.Scientists estimate that more than three-quarters of all species on Earth, including all non-avian dinosaurs, disappeared at the boundary of the Cretaceous-Paleogene periods, an event known as the K-Pg extinction. Evidence shows that the extinction occurred at the same time that a large asteroid hit Earth in what is now the Yucatán Peninsula. The collision would have triggered earthquakes, tsunamis, and even volcanic eruptions.Scientists also calculate that the force of the impact would have launched vaporized rock high above Earth's surface, where it would have condensed into small particles known as spherules. As the spherules fell back to Earth, they would have been heated by friction to temperatures high enough to spark global fires and broil Earth's surface. A thin layer of spherules can be found worldwide in the geologic record."The extinction of many of the large animals on land could have been caused by the immediate aftermath of the impact, but animals that lived in the oceans or those that could burrow underground or slip underwater temporarily could have survived," said NCAR scientist Charles Bardeen, who led the study. "Our study picks up the story after the initial effects — after the earthquakes and the tsunamis and the broiling. We wanted to look at the long-term consequences of the amount of soot we think was created and what those consequences might have meant for the animals that were left."Other study co-authors are Rolando Garcia and Andrew Conley, both NCAR scientists, and Owen “Brian” Toon, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder.An illustration of an asteroid impacting Earth. (Image courtesy NASA.)A world without photosynthesisIn past studies, researchers have estimated the amount of soot that might have been produced by global wildfires by measuring soot deposits still preserved in the geologic record. For the new study, Bardeen and his colleagues used the NCAR-based Community Earth System Model (CESM) to simulate the effect of the soot on global climate going forward. They used the most recent estimates of the amount of fine soot found in the layer of rock left after the impact (15,000 million tons), as well as larger and smaller amounts, to quantify the climate's sensitivity to more or less extensive fires.In the simulations, soot heated by the Sun was lofted higher and higher into the atmosphere, eventually forming a global barrier that blocked the vast majority of sunlight from reaching Earth's surface. “At first it would have been about as dark as a moonlit night," Toon said.While the skies would have gradually brightened, photosynthesis would have been impossible for more than a year and a half, according to the simulations. Because many of the plants on land would have already been incinerated in the fires, the darkness would likely have had its greatest impact on phytoplankton, which underpin the ocean food chain. The loss of these tiny organisms would have had a ripple effect through the ocean, eventually devastating many species of marine life.The research team also found that photosynthesis would have been temporarily blocked even at much lower levels of soot. For example, in a simulation using only 5,000 million tons of soot — about a third of the best estimate from measurements — photosynthesis would still have been impossible for an entire year.In the simulations, the loss of sunlight caused a steep decline in average temperatures at Earth's surface, with a drop of 50 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius) over land and 20 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius) over the oceans.While Earth's surface cooled in the study scenarios, the atmosphere higher up in the stratosphere actually became much warmer as the soot absorbed light from the Sun. The warmer temperatures caused ozone destruction and allowed for large quantities of water vapor to be stored in the upper atmosphere. The water vapor then chemically reacted in the stratosphere to produce hydrogen compounds that led to further ozone destruction. The resulting ozone loss would have allowed damaging doses of ultraviolet light to reach Earth's surface after the soot cleared.The large reservoir of water in the upper atmosphere formed in the simulations also caused the layer of sunlight-blocking soot to be removed abruptly after lingering for years, a finding that surprised the research team. As the soot began to settle out of the stratosphere, the air began to cool. This cooling, in turn, caused water vapor to condense into ice particles, which washed even more soot out of the atmosphere. As a result of this feedback loop — cooling causing precipitation that caused more cooling — the thinning soot layer disappeared in just a few months.Challenging the modelWhile the scientists think the new study gives a robust picture of how large injections of soot into the atmosphere can affect the climate, they also caution that the study has limitations.For example, the simulations were run in a model of modern-day Earth, not a model representing what Earth looked like during the Cretaceous Period, when the continents were in slightly different locations. The atmosphere 66 million years ago also contained somewhat different concentrations of gases, including higher levels of carbon dioxide.Additionally, the simulations did not try to account for volcanic eruptions or sulfur released from the Earth's crust at the site of the asteroid impact, which would have resulted in an increase in light-reflecting sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere.The study also challenged the limits of the computer model's atmospheric component, known as the Whole Atmosphere Community Climate Model (WACCM)."An asteroid collision is a very large perturbation — not something you would normally see when modeling future climate scenarios," Bardeen said. "So the model was not designed to handle this and, as we went along, we had to adjust the model so it could handle some of the event's impacts, such as warming of the stratosphere by over 200 degrees Celsius."These improvements to WACCM could be useful for other types of studies, including modeling a "nuclear winter" scenario. Like global wildfires millions of years ago, the explosion of nuclear weapons could also inject large amounts of soot into the atmosphere, which could lead to a temporary global cooling."The amount of soot created by nuclear warfare would be much less than we saw during the K-Pg extinction," Bardeen said. "But the soot would still alter the climate in similar ways, cooling the surface and heating the upper atmosphere, with potentially devastating effects."Writer:Laura Snider, Senior Science Writer

NCAR to host Air Quality Open House on May 3 in Boulder

BOULDER, Colo. — The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is marking Air Quality Awareness Week with a family-friendly open house at its Mesa Lab in southwest Boulder from 5-8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 3.A "brown cloud" of smog seen over Boulder, Colorado. (©UCAR. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)The free hands-on event will provide opportunities for visitors to learn about air pollution: what it is, how it's measured, what its impacts are, and how it's regulated. Visitors are encouraged to come with questions, and scientists will be on hand to provide answers, about air quality in general and Colorado's Front Range in particular."This will be everything you ever wanted to know about air quality," said Eileen Carpenter, an education specialist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), which manages NCAR. "We've partnered with organizations from around the region to bring together experts on a diverse range of air quality topics, from monitoring pollution from space to monitoring methane leaks from oil and gas operations right here on the Front Range."Partner organizations include the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Regional Air Quality Council, GO3–Global Ozone Project, the University of Colorado Environmental Engineering Program, the National Park Service, Ball Aerospace, Boulder County Public Health, and NASA.Activities will include learning how plants react to smog in NCAR's "ozone garden," exploring a mobile air monitoring lab, and participating in experiments designed to help kids understand how air pollution works. Some organizations will also be displaying the instruments they use to measure air quality, and NCAR will host an ask-a-scientist table.During the event, visitors can also check out the permanent air quality exhibit that was recently installed on the first floor of the Mesa Lab. The exhibit explains the different types of pollution — including ozone and particulates — and allows the viewer to interact with a live feed of air quality measurements taken from instruments on top of the Mesa Lab.What: NCAR Air Quality Open HouseWhere: Mesa Lab, 1850 Table Mesa Dr., Boulder, CO, 80305When: 5-8 p.m., Wednesday, May 3, 2017For more information, visit the event website. Writer:Laura Snider, Senior Science Writer and Public Information Officer

UCAR staff add climate storybook to Elementary GLOBE's line-up

March 2, 2017 | In a new illustrated storybook, a group of school children travel with a scientist to Greenland and the Maldives to learn about tools used to study climate change and its impacts. After seeing the challenge of melting glaciers and rising seas, the students come back with ideas on how to reduce their own greenhouse emissions.What in the World is Happening to Our Climate? introduces new material to a series of children's adventure science books published by Elementary GLOBE (part of the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment program).The newest storybook, funded by NASA Langley Research Center, is the product of a partnership between staff in two University Corporation for Atmospheric Research programs: the GLOBE Implementation Office and the UCAR Center for Science Education, or SciEd. SciEd supports the education and outreach efforts of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which UCAR manages with sponsorship by the National Science Foundation.The climate book is available for download at no charge:Becca Hatheway, SciEd's manager of teaching and learning, said NASA asked UCAR a couple of years ago to create educational resources for children in advance of the installation of the Sage III instrument on the International Space Station to measure ozone and aerosols in Earth’s atmosphere. (Sage III was installed last month).The result was What's Up in the Atmosphere: Exploring Colors in the Sky, a storybook featuring children who learn about the colors of the sky and their relationship to air quality through observations and photos. Hatheway and Kerry Zarlengo, a former elementary school teacher and literacy coach, wrote the book in 2015.During discussions about the air quality project, "we pitched the idea of doing a climate change book as well, and NASA was supportive," Hatheway said. "We've always wanted to do one on this topic — it's in the NCAR wheelhouse."UCAR's Elementary GLOBE's new climate storybook is geared to children in grades K-4. (©UCAR. Illustration by Lisa Gardiner. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)Hatheway co-wrote the text for the climate book with Diane Stanitski, a deputy director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder. The Elementary GLOBE series, which now numbers seven storybooks, is aimed at introducing K-4 students to Earth system science. The first five books focus on clouds, water, phenology, soils, and the Earth system. NASA is funding an update of those books, some of which are more than a decade old.Books are field tested by teachers, and the modules come with learning activities and a teacher's guide and glossary. The idea is that younger children will be guided in the reading and activities, while older children can learn more independently.Most of the storylines focus on a group of school children who go on adventures to learn and collect data about a topic.Lisa Gardiner, whose role at UCAR includes developing educational resources, has illustrated all of the books in the series. She said the climate book holds special meaning for her."It's at the root of what we do at SciEd," Gardiner said. "A lot of young kids want to know about climate change, but there aren't that many resources for their age group."Gardiner said she tries to make her illustrations as realistic as possible. To learn more about the Maldives, Gardiner asked Alison Rockwell of NCAR's Earth Observing Laboratory for photos from a field campaign several years ago. "I wanted to know what the houses looked like, what the people were wearing."The activities are realistic, too. The climate book's activities include building a model of a coastal community, predicting which features would be at risk of flooding, and then "flooding" the model to see the results.Children learning about wind energy in the new Elementary GLOBE climate storybook. (©UCAR. Illustration by Lisa Gardiner. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)Julie Malmberg, a GLOBE project manager, said the storybooks and learning activities can be downloaded for free, or educators can purchase a hard copy of the entire module for the cost of the printing and binding. She has heard from school officials, such as one in a West Virginia district, using the resources for grade-school teacher training.Most educators, Malmberg said, download the materials. Between 2012-2016, GLOBE recorded 42,533 storybook downloads and 54,197 downloads of learning activities. Do You Know Clouds Have Names, co-authored with NCAR Senior Scientist Emerita Peggy LeMone, is the most popular storybook, while the most popular learning activities are connected to a book called The Scoop on Soils.Hatheway said SciEd plans to provide copies of the climate change and sky color books to teachers who attend its professional development workshops or programs at the Mesa Lab, as well as at conferences SciEd staffers attend. NOAA plans to distribute the climate book at the National Science Teachers Association conference this spring.While the storybooks were developed for the educational community in the U.S., some have been translated into other languages and distributed by GLOBE partners in other countries.The GLOBE Program is an international science and education program that provides students and the public worldwide with the opportunity to participate in the scientific process and contribute to understanding of the Earth system and global environment.Writer/contactJeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer   

Indonesian fires exposed 69 million to 'killer haze'

November 16, 2016 | NCAR scientist Christine Wiedinmyer is a co-author of a new study into the health effects of the 2015 Indonesian wildfires. This is an excerpt from a news release issued by Newcastle University.  Wildfires in Indonesia and Borneo exposed 69 million people to unhealthy air pollution, new research has shown.An image taken from space of smoke billowing from fires in Jambi Province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The false-color image was made with a combination of visible (green) and infrared light so that fires and freshly burned land stand out. (Image courtesy NASA.)The study, published today in Scientific Reports, gives the most accurate picture yet of the impact on human health of the wildfires which ripped through forest and peatland in Equatorial Asia during the autumn of 2015.The study used detailed observations of the haze from Singapore and Indonesia. Analysing hourly air quality data from a model at a resolution of 10km – where all previous studies have looked at daily levels at a much lower resolution - the team was able to show that a quarter of the population of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia was exposed to unhealthy air quality conditions between September and October 2015.Estimating between 6,150 and 17,270 premature deaths occurred as a direct result of the polluted haze, the research team – involving academics from the UK, US, Singapore and Malaysia – said the study confirmed the extent of this public health crisis.Read the full news release by Newcastle University.About the articleTitle: Population exposure to hazardous air quality due to the 2015 fires in Equatorial AsiaAuthors: P. Crippa, S. Castruccio, S. Archer-Nicholls, G. B. Lebron, M. Kuwata, A. Thota, S. Sumin, E. Butt, C. Wiedinmyer, and D. V. SpracklenJournal: Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/srep37074

Scientists observe first signs of healing in the Antarctic ozone layer

NCAR scientists Doug Kinnison and Michael Mills are co-authors on a new study published today in the journal Science. This is an excerpt from a news release by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a UCAR member institution, about the study.This animation shows the opening and closing of the Antarctic ozone hole (dark blue) in 2015. (Animation courtesy of NASA.)June 30, 2016 | Scientists at MIT and elsewhere have identified the “first fingerprints of healing” of the Antarctic ozone layer, published today in the journal Science.The team found that the September ozone hole has shrunk by more than 4 million square kilometers — about half the area of the contiguous United States — since 2000, when ozone depletion was at its peak. The team also showed for the first time that this recovery has slowed somewhat at times, due to the effects of volcanic eruptions from year to year. Overall, however, the ozone hole appears to be on a healing path.The authors used “fingerprints” of the ozone changes with season and altitude to attribute the ozone’s recovery to the continuing decline of atmospheric chlorine originating from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These chemical compounds were once emitted by dry cleaning processes, old refrigerators, and aerosols such as hairspray. In 1987, virtually every country in the world signed on to the Montreal Protocol in a concerted effort to ban the use of CFCs and repair the ozone hole.“We can now be confident that the things we’ve done have put the planet on a path to heal,” says lead author Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science at MIT. “Which is pretty good for us, isn’t it? Aren’t we amazing humans, that we did something that created a situation that we decided collectively, as a world, ‘Let’s get rid of these molecules’? We got rid of them, and now we’re seeing the planet respond.”Solomon’s co-authors include Diane Ivy, research scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, along with researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and the University of Leeds in the U.K.Read the full release at MIT News.About the articleTitle: Emergence of Healing in the Antarctic Ozone Layer Authors: Susan Solomon, Diane J. Ivy, Doug Kinnison, Michael J. Mills, Ryan R. Neely, and Anja SchmidtJournal: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aae0061

Planes, ships and satellites: Investigating air quality in Korea

May 12, 2016 | Scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research are on the ground in South Korea as part of a field campaign to investigate the region's air quality. Between May 1 and June 12, NCAR scientists and their colleagues from NASA, U.S. and South Korean universities, and South Korea’s National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER) will collect observations from airborne labs, ships, satellites, and ground-based instruments. The campaign, which involves more than 580 researchers from 72 institutions, is called KORUS-AQ (Korea U.S.-Air Quality study). "These observations will help us develop a much better understanding of the various complex factors controlling air quality over the Korean Peninsula," said NCAR scientist Louisa Emmons, who is on site with KORUS-AQ. "The observations will help improve air quality models, and in turn, those models will help us interpret the current, as well as future, observations." This 2007 NASA satellite image shows a swath of air pollution sweeping east across the Korean peninsula to Japan. (Image courtesy NASA.) South Korea offers a rare opportunity to separate the diverse factors that contribute to air quality. For example, Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is one of the world's five most-populated metropolitan areas, but it is surrounded by rural, forested land. This stark separation gives scientists the ability to differentiate the components of pollution that originate from factories, tailpipes, and other human-related sources of pollution from those that originate from natural areas, including volatile organic compounds emitted by vegetation. Because the Korean Peninsula is largely isolated by bodies of water, scientists can also more easily determine what kinds of pollution blow into the region—dust and industrial pollution from China, for example—as well as what kinds of pollution blow out of the region toward Japan. From left: NCAR scientists Sam Hall, Benjamin Gaubert, Pablo Saide, Deedee Montzka, Louisa Emmons, and Andy Weinheimer. (Photo courtesy Sam Hall.) NCAR scientists are contributing to the effort in several ways. A team led by Emmons is issuing chemical forecasts of pollution transport and formation so that the scientists taking airborne measurements can decide where, or whether, to fly. The planes being used during KORUS-AQ include a NASA DC-8, a NASA King Air, and a Korean King Air operated by Hanseo University and NIER.  Two NCAR research groups from the Atmospheric Chemistry Observations  and Modeling lab are also flying instruments onboard the DC-8. One team, led by NCAR scientist Sam Hall, is measuring the amount of light available to break down compounds in the atmosphere. The second, led by NCAR scientist Andy Weinheimer, is measuring ozone and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere. In combination with other instruments on the aircraft, these help to characterize the photochemical history, processes, and evolution of air pollution along the flight path. Follow what's happening with KORUS-AQ at the NASA Earth Expeditions blog, or watch a video about the campaign here. Writer/contactLaura Snider, Senior Science Writer and Public Information Officer

Tracking air quality from high in the sky

October 21, 2015 | NCAR scientists have demonstrated how new types of satellite data could improve how agencies monitor and forecast air quality, both globally and by region. The scientists used computer simulations to test a method that combines analysis of chemistry-climate model output with the kind of data that could be obtained from a planned fleet of geostationary satellites, each of which would view a large area of Earth on a continuous basis from high orbit. For example, with a constellation of satellites, the system could be used to measure, track, and predict the effects of pollution emitted in Asia and transported to the western U.S., or the impacts of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest on air quality in the Midwest. A high-orbit geostationary satellite could view a large area of the Earth, such as North America in this illustration, on a continuous basis. (Image courtesy NASA/Langley Research Center). "We think the new perspective made possible by geostationary sensors would provide data that is useful for everyday air quality forecasting, as well as for early warnings about extreme events, like the effects of wildfires," said NCAR scientist Helen Worden, one of the members of the research team. The NCAR team reported their test of the system's potential in a paper co-authored with a NASA scientist that appears in the journal Atmospheric Environment. Current observations are mostly taken from low-elevation, globally orbiting satellites that provide only one or two measurements over a given location per day, thus limiting critical air quality observations, such as vehicle emissions during rush hour. ­One exception is an air quality forecasting system at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that uses geostationary sensors to provide information about tiny polluting particles known as aerosols. But that system doesn't track carbon monoxide, a primary indicator of air pollution that serves as a good chemical tracer for observing how pollutants are emitted and dispersed in the atmosphere. "Carbon monoxide lives long enough—a month or two—that you can track it around the Earth," Worden said. To fill in the data gap, several countries and space agencies plan to deploy geostationary satellites by the end of the decade to observe and monitor air pollutants over North America, Europe, and East Asia. Proof of concept The team members applied a statistical technique that they and colleagues have developed over the years to analyze data obtained by an instrument aboard NASA's globally orbiting Terra spacecraft called MOPITT (Measurement of Pollution in the Troposphere). A collaboration between the University of Toronto and NCAR, MOPITT pioneered the measurement of carbon monoxide from space. Starting with MOPITT's real-world observations, the scientists then produced a data set of hypothetical observations representative of those potentially obtainable from a constellation of geostationary satellites. They visualized their results on high-resolution maps, producing results for areas as small as 2.7 miles (7 kilometers) wide that extend as high as 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) into the atmosphere. Measurements of carbon monoxide in April 2014 from the MOPITT instrument  (Measurement of Pollution in the Troposphere) aboard NASA's globally orbiting Terra spacecraft. The boxes show the observing domains for geostationary satellites and red colors indicate high levels of carbon monoxide. (©UCAR. Image courtesy Helen Worden, NCAR. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.) When it comes to speed and cost, the NCAR method has several advantages. A month's worth of data, about 200 million data points, can be produced in less than 12 hours using a standard desktop computer. "The model produced very realistic results on high-resolution maps at a low computational cost," said NCAR scientist Jerome Barre, who led the study. The scientists caution that there are limitations to the new system when viewing extremely polluted areas. The team accounted for the impact of clouds in their model to simulate the most realistic measurements.  Next steps A geostationary satellite positioned at about 22,000 miles above the equator will orbit in sync with the Earth’s rotation, thus remaining fixed above the same region. Measurements by the satellite's instruments can be taken many times a day. A constellation of such satellites would provide the coverage over populated regions needed to provide enough data to analyze air quality and atmospheric composition, determine whether the pollution is human-made or natural, and track its movement. In addition to carbon monoxide, instruments on these satellites would gather data on other pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide and ozone. "Combined, those will give you good indications of the chemical conditions of the atmosphere," Barre said. That would enable scientists to track pollutants both vertically and horizontally in our atmosphere, he said, and that is "what's really needed to monitor, forecast, and manage air quality on a daily basis." About the article Jerome Barre, David P. Edwards, Helen M. Worden, Arlindo Da Silva, and William Lahoz, 2015: On the feasibility of monitoring carbon monoxide in the lower troposphere from a constellation of Northern Hemisphere geostationary satellites. (Part 1). Atmospheric Environment, 113, 63-77, doi:10.1016/j.atmosenv.2015.04.069 Writer/ContactJeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer Collaborating organizations NASA Norwegian Institute for Air Research FundersNational Science FoundationNASA

What's driving soot across India?

October 12, 2015 | As a teenager in the 1990s, NCAR postdoctoral scientist Rajesh Kumar bicycled five miles from his village north of Delhi to school. He remembers riding through clear skies and fog, but not smog. Today, Delhi ranks as the most polluted city in the world with 12 additional Indian cities in the notorious top 20, according to the urban air database released last year by the World Health Organization. In Delhi alone, small particulates averaged six times the recommended maximum, a hazard to the health especially of children and the elderly. Smog also contributes to climate change by trapping heat that otherwise would escape the atmosphere. Scientists have identified the sources and transport patterns of black carbon soot, a health and visibility problem for a dozen Indian cities, including Delhi, shown here enveloped in smog. (Photo by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier, Creative Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr.) Experiencing increased air pollution in his home country has inspired Kumar to understand more about its driving forces and remedies. Most recently, the researcher was lead author on a paper concluding that black carbon emissions—fine particles or soot caused by the incomplete burning of fossil fuels and biomass from plant or animal waste—are transported in the atmosphere across India. Only 5 percent of the emissions at any given time blow in from outside the country.   Black carbon emissions from northern India, for example, contribute up to 30 percent to black carbon pollution in southern India during the winter, the study found, while southern India makes a similar contribution to northern India during the summer monsoon season. While human activity—agricultural waste burning, use of household cook stoves, industry and vehicles—is the cause of most black carbon emissions, the seasonal cycle is driven by the monsoon weather. "What this means is that India has the power to reduce black carbon emissions significantly—but only if individual states and regions work together on mitigation strategies," said Kumar. The paper appears in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres. A research team headed by Kumar now is conducting a simulation of how air quality is likely to change in South Asia overall by mid-century, a topic he will discuss at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in December. Haze from urban and industrial pollution, as well as agricultural and wildland fires (red dots), can be seen over northern India below the Himalayan mountain range in this satellite image from October 2014. (Photo courtesy NASA.) Shining a spotlight on soot Co-author Mary Barth, an NCAR scientist, noted that attention to black carbon emissions has grown as more is known about its ability to strongly absorb solar radiation. The issue is especially of concern in densely populated areas such as the Indo-Gangetic Plain, which consists of Bangladesh and swaths of India and Pakistan. There is concern not only due to black carbon's atmospheric impacts, but also because soot that settles on snow absorbs more heat from the Sun and thus accelerates melting. Emission levels are so high in that region that there is concern about glacier melt in the Himalayas—the region's primary storehouse of water. "If you curtail black carbon emissions, you can reduce heat over the short term," Barth said. "It's something you can do while working to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere." Black carbon has a short life span of only a week or two, while carbon dioxide molecules remain in the atmosphere for about 100 years. Prior studies have provided important information about black carbon pollution in parts of India, but they didn't detail the specifics of how the particles are transported across the country. For their observational database, the research team used monthly average black carbon concentrations reported from 21 sites representing a range of environments, including cities, semi-urban areas, and coastal areas. They also took meteorological data into account. The team then developed models for tracking air pollutants that were combined with the NCAR-based Weather Research and Forecasting Model. NCAR researcher Rajesh Kumar studies black carbon emission levels. (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use. While the computer model reproduced the seasonal cycle of black carbon emissions fairly well, it was more difficult to capture that seasonality in the complex terrain of the Himalayan region. Kumar, who also has studied the impact of ozone pollution on India's agriculture production, notes that India is taking steps to improve its air quality. Efforts include national programs to promote liquefied petroleum gas for cooking and solar power for energy production and irrigation. "I hope that in 20 years or so, India will be able to talk about its good air quality, not its pollution," Kumar said.  About the article Rajesh Kumar, M. C. Barth, G. G. Pfister, V. S. Nair, Sachin D. Ghude, and N. Ojha, 2015: What controls the seasonal cycle of black carbon aerosols in India? Journal of Geophysical Research - Atmospheres, 120, 7788-7812, DOI: 10.1002/2015JD023298 | OpenSky Dive Deeper Variability in emission levels was simulated by applying a tagging technique developed by Kumar. The technique consists of assigning 10 different values or "tracers" to standard black carbon particles in order to track the emissions from different regions and sources. For example, separate tracers were assigned to emissions from four regions of India and from outside the country to determine geographic variability. Traditionally, researchers would have done a separate simulation for each tracer, or variable. Putting all 10 tracers in the model at the same time saved a tremendous amount of computing time, Kumar said. The data, crunched by the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center's Yellowstone system, took only about a tenth the time of the traditional method. Writer/contact Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer Collaborating organizations Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Germany Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, India. Funder National Science Foundation

A heads up on air quality

March 11, 2015 | Air pollution in the United States costs thousands of lives and billions of dollars every year. But what if forecasters could issue detailed air quality forecasts days in advance? Such forecasts may be coming. NCAR and its research partners recently received a $1.3 million grant from NASA to develop the capability to produce detailed 48-hour forecasts of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter. Summer smog obscures Los Angeles. NCAR scientists are working to create a system to produce more detailed air pollution forecasts. (Photo by Massimo Catarinella via Wikipedia Commons.) This will provide an important advance to air quality forecasts, which are issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. The current forecasts provide just a single-value prediction. A forecast might state, for example, that concentrations of ozone (the chief ingredient in smog) are expected to be in the “moderate” category on the following day. But it will not specify how likely it is that ozone levels will actually turn out to be moderate. The goal for the new, three-year project is to generate more detailed, probabilistic forecasts. Just as a weather forecast, for example, might warn of a 60 percent chance of rain in the afternoon, new air quality forecasts might warn of a 60 percent chance of high ozone levels during certain times of the day. These improved forecasts offer the promise of significant benefits for society. High concentrations of ozone and fine particulates (with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less) cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems and even premature death, as well as costs associated with health care, missed work, and damage to crops and forests. Poor air quality in the United States causes as many as 60,000 premature deaths each year and costs $100–$150 billion per year, according to NOAA estimates. More detailed forecasts would enable people to plan their outdoor activities for periods of better air quality. “If the forecasts can reduce the impacts of these pollutants by even 1 percent, that would save 600 lives and more than $1 billion each year,” said NCAR scientist Luca Delle Monache, who is leading the project. “That would be more lives saved than are lost in an average year by all severe weather events combined, including tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods.” Leveraging the past to predict the future The new technology will use advanced computer models and atmospheric observations, including NASA satellite sensors. It will also incorporate a powerful technique that Delle Monache and his colleagues have developed over the past several years and successfully applied to fine-scale prediction of certain weather phenomena. The technique is being used to forecast the atmospheric conditions most conducive to generating solar and wind power, for example. The technique, known as an analog ensemble, draws on a multitude of past computer model predictions and observations to create a database of situations that are comparable to the current one. It analyzes how well those past predictions performed. The information is then applied to the current situation. This results in more detailed and accurate predictions. If all goes as planned, the research team will begin testing the new prediction technology next year. Air quality officials say they are looking forward to getting more detailed forecasts, including the first-ever estimates of probability within NOAA-issued air quality predictions. “NCAR's new forecast system promises to expand the forecasting capabilities in Delaware and the continental United States,” said Ali Mirzakhalili, director of the Delaware Division of Air Quality. “This will improve the decision making process for protecting the public health.” Writer/contactDavid Hosansky CollaboratorsNCARNASANOAAUniversity of Colorado BoulderUniversity of Maryland FunderNASA              

Cold facts of air pollution

February 2, 2015 | The difference between a breath of cold air and a breath of warm air isn’t just the temperature. It’s also the pollutants they might contain. Until now, wintertime air pollution hasn’t been studied in much detail. Scientists have focused more on warm air, partly because summertime's stagnant atmospheric conditions and intense sunshine tend to worsen ozone pollution. But that's about to change as researchers turn their attention to winter air quality in the eastern United States. The WINTER field project will focus on the Northeast urban corridor, Ohio River Valley, and Southeast Mid-Atlantic. (©UCAR. Image by Alison Rockwell, NCAR, based on NASA satellite map. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.) This month, a major air quality project known as WINTER (Wintertime Investigation of Transport, Emissions, and Reactivity) takes to the air to examine pollutants across the Northeast urban corridor, Ohio River Valley, and Southeast Mid-Atlantic. Scientists will home in on wintertime emissions from urban areas, power plants, and farmland, and seek to better understand the chemical processes that take place as pollutants move through an atmosphere that is not only colder but also darker than in summer. The field campaign, which runs from February 1 to March 15, is being led by scientists at the University of Washington, NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, University of California Berkeley, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Colorado Boulder, and the University of New Hampshire. The research team will use the NSF/NCAR C-130, a flying laboratory equipped with more than 20 instruments to measure gases and particles. The aircraft is owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by NCAR. NCAR is also managing the project, including coordinating research flights and providing data services. Flight operations will be based at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. "Aircraft missions will occur at different times during the campaign so that the pollutant gases and reactions can be observed during the day, at night, from night into day, and day into night,” said NCAR project manager Cory Wolff. WINTER's regional differences NCAR scientist Alan Hills (right) and University of California, Irvine, graduate student Jason Schroeder operate instruments for the WINTER field project aboard the NSF/NCAR C-130. (©UCAR. Photo by Alison Rockwell, NCAR. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.) A number of factors affect wintertime air: colder temperatures, snow cover, lower absolute humidity, and fewer hours of sunlight. Plants tend to emit fewer chemicals, while people may emit more as they burn heating oil and other fuels to heat their homes. In addition, pollutants may travel farther because chemical reactions take place more slowly in cold air. By flying over several regions, the WINTER research team will better understand the atmospheric impacts created by different types of emissions from major cities in the Northeast and coal-fired power plants in the Ohio River Valley. The scientists will compare those emissions with data they gather in the Southeast, where winters are milder, plants have a more pronounced influence on the atmosphere, and emissions come from agricultural burning. The project’s findings will be used to provide more detailed information to decision makers and improve computer models of the atmosphere. “Wintertime pollution has not been the focus of many campaigns—most are during the spring and summer months when the Sun has maximum impact,” said Wolff. “By sampling the air in the cold and darkness of winter, the science team can get a better sense of the atmospheric chemistry of the eastern United States and compare that to other times of year. " Writer/contactDavid Hosansky CollaboratorsUniversity of WashingtonNOAA's Earth System Research LaboratoryUniversity of California BerkeleyGeorgia Institute of TechnologyUniversity of Colorado BoulderUniversity of New Hampshire FundersNational Science Foundation (NSF)National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)        

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