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Graphic showing pollution monitoring
A sampling of the vehicles, instruments, aircraft and locations NOAA and NASA will use in the summer of 2023 in an air pollution sampling blitz aimed at improving monitoring and regulation of ozone and particulate pollution across the U.S. (Chelsea Thompson, NOAA Chemical Sciences Laboratory)

Boulder’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is leading a three-nation summer blitz of air pollution sensors ranging from high-altitude aircraft to rooftops to backpacks, in a massive escalation of the battle against ozone and particulate toxins, scientists announced Thursday.

Alarmed by a slowing of the gains made against air pollution across the United States, NOAA, NASA and researchers from 21 universities are gathering data from ground level to miles high to help federal and state agencies understand the current interplay of pollution, climate, weather and wildfires. 

Concentrated over cities such as New York, Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles, the flight portions have included a NOAA flyover of an airport near Colorado Springs, with instruments running. 

“If you have a lot of people working at the same time, you get more than the sum of these different parts. People are working on the same thing and learning more if they do it together,” said NOAA research chemist Andrew Rollins, one of the summer mission scientists, speaking from an Air Force hangar in Dayton, Ohio. 

Here’s why NOAA is part of the summer air blitz, and what researchers hope to gain from it: 

Gains against air pollution have stagnated, while the mix of pollutants is changing, posing a challenge to regulators. 

Cleaner cars and closing coal power plants, among other changes, helped clean up urban ozone in trouble spots like Colorado’s northern Front Range through the 2010s. But air pollution cuts in some cities like Denver have slowed, while the EPA is poised to follow science advice and further tighten limits on ozone and fine particulate pollution. Wildfires, fueled in part by climate change, are adding more smoke to the mix as well, often from far out of state. 

While contributions from fossil fuel burning vehicles are declining, more pollutants are traceable to volatile chemicals given off by consumer products ranging from paint to nail polish, Rollins said. Air and weather monitoring across multiple levels of atmosphere and much of the North American continent will help scientists understand where pollutants are coming from, and how weather amplifies and spreads them. 

“What would be the best way forward, if we want to continue to improve air quality?” Rollins said. Four of NOAA’s labs are leading three of the coordinated summer projects, including air sensors on a Twin Otter aircraft and an SUV measuring air in the Northeast Corridor from Baltimore to Long Island Sound. 

New tools add onto more traditional methods of sensor flights and ground-level science. 

Air pollution research wasn’t born yesterday, but an important new portion of it was born Tuesday. That was the first time NASA started collecting data from a new geostationary satellite sensor with a new air pollution measurement instrument called TEMPO, for Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution. (The instrument was built by Broomfield-based Ball Aerospace.) The sensor sits at one spot over the equator and can “sweep” the whole continent once an hour. 

A rocket carrying the air pollution monitoring TEMPO sensors takes off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in April 2023, to deliver the satellite into geostationary orbit. (Walter Scriptunas/Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian)

TEMPO could “see” an area where over-fertilization for agriculture is producing excessive nitrogen oxides, a component of harmful air pollution. In the ozone battle, the satellite can also track intrusions of stratospheric ozone, which in that zone is a positive shield against solar radiation, down into the troposphere where it can contribute to growth of ground-level ozone that harms animals and plants. 

“This is an unprecedented scientific investigation —in scope, scale and sophistication — of an ongoing public health threat that kills people every year,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a news release.

From Gulfstream jets to DC-8s to backpacks crossing Central Park, air pollution scientists will pour oceans of data back for analysis. 

The largest NOAA project includes 30 instruments on a NASA DC-8 to measure chemicals over dense cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Toronto. NASA is also sending up instruments on two Gulfstream smaller jets for higher altitude measurements.

NOAA instruments on a Twin Otter craft will focus on weather and atmospheric dynamics at play carrying pollutants around metro New York and southern New England. Another project combines a University of Maryland Cessna with NOAA instruments on an SUV driving the corridor from Washington, D.C., through Baltimore, New York and Long Island. 

Yale University and other partners will measure from the rooftops of The City College of New York campus. The scientists with backpack instruments in Manhattan will look for surface ozone and 2.5 particulate matter in underserved neighborhoods with heavier health impacts from heat and pollution. 

How soon could the air blitz results show up in scientific papers and public policy debates? 

This week was also the deadline for scientists to submit paper topics to the American Geophysical Union’s gathering in December, Rollins said. Some of the research from the summer flights and other integrated data will begin to come out at that December meeting, then for months and years afterward. 

“It’s a pretty exciting time for air quality research because of these new geostationary satellites,” Rollins said. Federal agencies are developing another advanced satellite that will launch in about five years, and some of this summer’s research will be used to help design what is needed from that next generation effort, Rollins said. 

“I think probably the thing that is going to be the biggest challenge for us to understand in the coming years is wildfire smoke in urban areas,” Rollins said.

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...