20 years ago, when meteorologist John Haynes first went to Washington, DC, there was so much pollution that he could stand on the roof of NASA headquarters and see airborne residues of the neighboring interstate highway. He claims that a cloud of smog extended all the way into Virginia and simply followed the freeway.
A decade later, NASA began sowing the seeds for an international initiative to track the health impacts of metropolitan air quality. The seeds have just started to sprout: The organization launched its first hovering equipment to monitor urban pollution recently. The scientists will add measures from aerial surveys to those data this summer. Also, NASA recently unveiled its first satellite mission, which will be carried out in collaboration with medical professionals to shed light on the connection between particular health issues and the dangerous airborne particles hanging over some of the biggest cities in the world.
The mission aims to paint a thorough picture of what exactly is in the sky and how it got there, one that is impossible to do just through the use of ground-based pollution monitors. The data from the Environmental Protection Agency does not accurately reflect the air that most people breathe because there are no EPA monitors in 79% of US counties. Much less data is available from other parts of the world.
NASA has previously experimented with environmental surveillance. Since the 1990s, the organization has been monitoring conditions closer to Earth by using tiny aircraft to fly over the ocean, tropical rainforests, and regions of Asia and Africa. The agency has been analyzing the ozone layer, the uppermost layer of the atmosphere, for decades.
“That was sort of what we call the exploratory days,” says Earth scientist Barry Lefer, manager of NASA’s Tropospheric Composition Program, which focuses on the chemical makeup of pollutants inhabiting the atmosphere underneath the ozone layer. “But,” he continues, “the transition to urban air quality is relatively new.”
It is difficult to monitor emissions across even a small area like a city, let alone a neighborhood, from a vast area like the sky. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, the agency’s first satellite tasked with investigating atmospheric carbon dioxide, was launched in 2014 and is still operational. OCO-3, its replacement, is currently fixed to the International Space Station. The two have created precise maps of the emissions of carbon dioxide from the largest power plant in Europe and the Los Angeles basin. OCO-3 travels over almost every city on Earth, however it doesn’t continuously monitor any site for extended periods of time, therefore its information is still limited.
The new solution is TEMPO, the NASA air quality project that recently launched. TEMPO stands for Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution. It will be the first Earth-observing satellite with an instrument locked in a geostationary orbit, which allows it to hover over a specific area of the world by rotating in tandem with the planet. For the first time, NASA will be able to make hourly daytime observations of nitrogen dioxide, ozone, formaldehyde, and more across North America, including the continental United States, the Caribbean islands, and most of Canada and Mexico. “We’re going to get from sunrise to sunset,” Lefer says, with data taken frequently enough to see spikes during rush hour traffic.
Moreover, TEMPO will be able to monitor changes in local pollution levels. Lefer believes that since lower-income and racially segregated regions are more likely to be close to emissions sources, such ports and refineries, it will be especially helpful for revealing environmental inequality. “And satellite data can show that,” he says. With information being continuously gathered across larger North America, weather forecasting will also improve. Agencies will be able to predict future conditions with more accuracy, particularly in areas where data is currently limited to a specific time of day.
Just as remote-sensing ground monitors only look up, satellites only look down. According to chemist Gregory Frost of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a lot is overlooked in that situation, including specifics on which pollutants are present at various altitudes. To close the gaps between space and the ground this summer, NASA will collaborate with NOAA, the National Science Foundation, and a number of other organizations. Trace gases and aerosols will be characterized by instruments on NASA’s DC-8, Gulfstream III and V, and other planes flying over urban areas like New York City, Los Angeles, and DC, as well as coastal areas.
In regions without adequate satellite or ground coverage, these readings will contribute to and calibrate Tempo’s space data. Soon, scientists will be able to examine the atmosphere from a variety of perspectives thanks to the combination of all of this data with information from EPA monitors and weather models.. “Once we do that,” Frost says, “it’s going to be like having an air pollution monitor everywhere.”
PM 2.5 pollutants, or particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, are of great interest to scientists. Less than 1% of the atmosphere is made up of aerosols like these. Frost notes that while that may not seem like much, these trace components are the root of all air quality issues. They damage crops, impair visibility, and are small enough to enter human lungs, where they may cause respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. Even smaller, less than micrometer-sized particles, can enter the bloodstream.
“Airborne particulate matter is considered to be the top environmental health risk worldwide,” says David Diner, a planetary scientist at NASA. But which types of PM 2.5 are most harmful to humans is still mostly a mystery. “There’s always this question about whether our bodies are more sensitive to the size of these particles or their chemical composition,” he says.
Diner is leading NASA’s first partnership with significant health agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to find out. Next year, the teams hope to launch an observatory dubbed MAIA, or Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols, in collaboration with the Italian Space Agency. This observatory would sample the air over 11 of the world’s most populous cities, including Boston, Johannesburg, and Tel Aviv. In order to determine the sizes and chemical composition of aerosols, the imager will measure sunlight scattering off of them. Epidemiologists will get this information and integrate it with data from ground-based monitors and public health records to determine whether particle sizes and combinations are associated with particular health issues, such as emphysema, pregnancy complications, and early mortality.
Partnering with medical professionals is essential, according to Diner, as they are qualified to acquire and accurately evaluate birth, death, and hospitalization records while maintaining patient privacy. Once the mission team understands which toxins, or blends of them, are most harmful, and can track down their sources, “then perhaps society can more effectively regulate the particles that have the most detrimental impacts on human health,” he says.
Not only NASA is monitoring ozone depletion in the atmosphere. The Geostationary Environmental Monitoring Spectrometer, or GEMS, a South Korean sensor, served as TEMPO’s precursor and has been monitoring pollution patterns over larger Asia since 2020. The Copernicus Sentinel-4 satellite will be launched by the European Space Agency in a few years to do the same task over Europe and North Africa. Scientists will be able to follow how pollution moves over long distances, when it leaves the range of one spacecraft and comes up in another, thanks to this satellite constellation, which will offer the first thorough view of air quality over the whole northern hemisphere.
Such a network is not currently anticipated for the southern hemisphere. However, Lefer notes that work is being done with NOAA to transform information from current satellites into accurate assessments of PM 2.5 for regions of the world without ground-based monitoring. Haynes is the program manager for NASA’s Health and Air Quality Applications program and its Applied Remote Sensing Training Program, which conducts free seminars to instruct the public on how to use NASA data for concerns relating to air quality, fire risk, and conservation. International teams operating satellites, aircraft, and ground-based sensors while collaborating with epidemiologists, socioeconomic experts, policymakers, and citizen scientists are the future that both NASA scientists see. “All of these are coming together to really make a golden age of using Earth observations for understanding air quality and health,” Haynes says.
The atmosphere is already cleaning up, according to satellite data. According to Haynes, sulfur concentrations are now too low to be measured from orbit. In some places, nitrogen dioxide has fallen by 50%. Now Haynes is no longer able to see the smog over the interstate: “Air quality in the United States is cleaner now than at any time in the modern industrial age,” he says. “We can have a clean environment, and also a healthy economy and healthy population — all at the same time.”
Source: TEMPO, via Wired
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