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Air-Quality Research Heats Up in California
Photo of Terry Lathem Photograph of Terry Lathem. Credit: NASA
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The West Coast holds a certain fascination for Americans, with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, a striking coastal terrain of both sandy beaches and towering rock cliffs, and other geological features responsible for the region's stunning scenic beauty.

But it's the science of California's atmosphere attracting attention right now, not glamour nor geology.

NASA scientists have partnered with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in a unique collaboration between air quality specialists and scientific investigators with matching interests. Both the state of California and atmospheric researchers hope to gain a better understanding of natural and human-induced emissions sources.

"The better our understanding of the sources and their transport becomes, the better our air quality modeling and forecasting," says Terry Lathem, a graduate student researcher from Georgia Institute of Technology working with scientists from NASA's Langley Research Center.

Lathem is one of a large number of students, from across the country and within Calilfornia's university system, participating in fieldwork during NASA's Arctic Research of the Composition of the Troposphere from Aircraft and Satellites (ARCTAS) mission to assist CARB and other agencies in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Of particular interest to the science community is the extensive range of measurements being gathered to support air quality modeling and forecasting. Having such a broad set of data allows researchers to delve deep into their studies and to look at how the air they sample has a bigger impact.

"The aircraft instrumentation has been selected and designed to measure all aspects of air quality, from the reactive gases in the air that create the smog and haze, to counting, sizing and measuring the chemical composition of the individual particles floating around," Lathem says. "We are also interested in the implications to climate, such as how these particles influence the formation of clouds, which can then lead to changes in surface temperature or precipitation."

For scientists interested in the effects of human urbanization on air quality and climate, Lathem says there are no shortages of interesting case studies and that each measurement will help improve understanding of the region. This regional-scale understanding can be used to improve knowledge on a global scale.

"A better understanding will then enable us to help improve the air quality for not only the California region, but also similarly polluted regions worldwide," Lathem says.

And what of the collaboration? "We are already beginning to see the benefits resulting from the collaboration between CARB and the airborne scientific investigators, Lathem says. "Each flight yields data that are very good, with interesting structures and gradients."

One mission challenge is heat, Lathem says, especially with the recent heat wave throughout some parts of the western United States. The instruments used in ARCTAS missions are expected to operate over a range of temperatures from near or below freezing, as in the Arctic, to possibly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit as is possible in California.

"Excessive cold or excessive heat tends to stress the instruments and computers (as well as the scientists!), and we have to work around the conditions accordingly," Lathem says.

Despite the challenges, "It is sometimes still hard for me to imagine that I have so quickly become immersed in atmospheric chemistry field work," Lathem says. "My first research flight was only a year ago, and since that time I have been on more than 15 flights in four countries (the United States., Costa Rica, Canada and Greenland), totaling more than 100 hours."

"Sure the travel is extensive, but it is also very rewarding," he says. "I’ve seen more of the world in this last year than in my entire life up to that point."

And as it is with students who have been participating in ARCTAS, it all goes back to that one very important interest: "I’ve also collected enough data within one year to satisfy my doctoral thesis."

The research Lathem is doing will be directly incorporated into his doctoral thesis, a detailed study on aerosol-cloud-climate interactions for different environments and conditions.

Denise M. Stefula
NASA Langley Research Center