CU-Boulder prof to lead NASA campaign to study North American air quality

A University of Colorado Boulder professor is leading a major NASA airborne science campaign this summer that will probe weather patterns and air pollution over a vast expanse of North America that have potential global climate consequences.

The campaign, known as the Studies of Emissions, Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys, or SEAC4RS, will allow researchers to look at the atmosphere from top to bottom at a critical time of year when strong weather systems pump chemicals from regional air pollution high into the atmosphere, said CU-Boulder Professor Brian Toon, the project science leader. The team will use a suite of scientific instruments aboard three aircraft: a NASA DC-8 airliner converted into a flying laboratory, the agency’s high-altitude ER-2 -- a modern version of the Air Force U2-S reconnaissance aircraft -- and a Spec Inc. Lear Jet from Boulder equipped with advanced sensors to measure the properties of clouds.

The multimillion-dollar project will involve more than 250 scientists, engineers, students and flight personnel from five different NASA centers, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and 15 universities, including CU-Boulder, Harvard University, the California Institute of Technology and the University of Innsbruck. The research flights in the SEAC4Rs campaign are slated to begin in August and run through the end of September.

There are several mission goals, said Toon, a professor in CU-Boulder’s atmospheric and oceanic sciences department. The team wants to understand how air pollution and other substances like water, for example, are carried from Earth’s surface to the stratosphere, since they can impact climate and the ozone layer. While such vertical transport occurs daily during random thunderstorms, it also occurs in organized systems like hurricanes and the North American Monsoon, which covers a large region of the American Southwest as well as Mexico, Central America and northern South America each summer, bringing rain to arid lands, he said.

A second goal is to chart how emissions from plants and domestic animals are interacting with air pollution, said Toon, who also is affiliated with CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. “In the southeast United States, there are large atmospheric emissions from plants and people that affect air quality,” he said. “When the air from these two sources is mixed, unusual chemistry can occur, potentially impacting human health.  Satellites show a large change in these emissions between August and September, which we would like to know more about.”

The team also is interested in better understanding how smoke impacts climate and will study intense North American forest fires hurling huge plumes of smoke into the atmosphere that can drift across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. “By altering cloud properties and by absorbing sunlight, smoke can have a significant effect on the climate,” he said.

In addition, the SEAC4RS air campaign will be used to measure the accuracy of NASA satellites, develop new techniques for gathering atmospheric data and to learn more about the planet from space. Numerous NASA Earth-observing satellites are involved in the project, including CloudSat, CALYPSO and GOES.

Watch a video interview with CU-Boulder Professor Brian Toon.

Read the full news release.