BETTY ANN BOWSER: As part of the biggest scientific study of air pollution in history, a weather balloon was recently launched from a research ship off the coast of New Hampshire. On another part of the vessel, graduate student Jeff Leach took readings from the balloon.
JEFF LEACH: And it's giving us the relative humidity, ozone pressure and the ozone mixing ratio.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: A few moments later, a NASA research plane flew overhead with three sophisticated instruments onboard to take readings. Though the technologies were different, they all focused on measuring one thing: Air pollution. According to Cameron Wake at the University of New Hampshire, air pollution contributes to some 60,000 deaths a year.
CAMERON WAKE: We know that when there's an air pollution event that the people that need to go to the emergency room for pulmonary problems increases. If you want to put it into economic terms, we're talking something on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars per year that it costs our economy -- air pollution-- because people have to go to the hospital, because of mortality, and because of lost work days.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This summer, hundreds of scientists like Wake took part in a massive air pollution study involving six countries, 25 universities, NOAA, NASA, and private foundations. They had three satellites, 55 ground stations, 13 planes, and the NOAA ship "Ron Brown" to make air pollution measurements. It's all part of the International Consortium for Atmospheric Research on Transport and Transformation, or more simply put, ICARTT.
The scientists were especially interested in the chemistry of one of the newest discoveries of modern atmospheric science; that air pollution is not just a local problem. Huge plumes of bad air can be generated half a world away, and transported across oceans and between continents. Dr. Berrien Moore is a University of New Hampshire scientist.
BERRIEN MOORE: What happens in Beijing will affect Boston, what happens in Boston will affect Paris, et cetera. And I think that that's something that we will have... even as we begin to solve local problems, this connectivity of the planet will come back at us time and time again.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Atmospheric scientists want to understand the chemistry of those connections, and what impact that has on global climate change. And in order to gain that knowledge scientists have to be able to track the plumes. Daniel Jacob of Harvard University has developed a computer model to follow one pollutant, carbon monoxide.
DANIEL JACOB: What you're going to see in this movie is the transport basically around the world of this gas, to the point where emissions from Asia affect North America, emissions from North America affect Europe, emissions from Europe affect Asia, and you have this dance of pollution around and around the world. We're all breathing each others' exhaust.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In fact, the U.S. part of the study was done in New England because it's been described as "the tailpipe of America," where much of the pollution flows from the Midwest and Southeast, then out to sea. In order to track that kind of movement, Greg Carmichael from the University of Iowa has developed another computer model that locates the plumes, then tells the planes where to fly, and the "Ron Brown" where to go at sea.
GREG CARMICHAEL: This blue color that we see here is actually the New York plume. So this would be identification of where the pollutants from the New York area are going. The brown cloud here indicates the Midwest, the green is California. So this way we can isolate source areas. So, a computer model like this would say that if we wanted to look at the really dirty stuff, then we could fly to... on this particular day we could fly to the southeast U.S. If we wanted to look at the really clean material, we could fly out east over the ocean.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: One of the planes NASA used was a DC-8 fitted with multiple air intake ports along the outer body. On the inside are dozens of custom-built instruments to take measurements of up to 180 different chemicals. The equipment can detect concentrations as low as ten parts per billion.
SPOKESMAN: What we're looking at is a gas called formaldehyde, which is one of the many constituents that are important in trying to understand pollution chemistry.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: NOAA adapted its hurricane-chasing P-3 plane for closer-in flights, such as this mission up the coast of New England. The exotic technology let scientists isolate specific chemicals and see how they mix in the atmosphere to form substances like ozone, which can be a health hazard in high concentrations. While the planes are in the air and the research ship "Brown" is at sea, people like Fred Fehsenfeld, NOAA's chief scientist, are following events on land.
FRED FEHSENFELD: The warmer colors down here indicates that the aircraft was flying at lower elevations. And it was flying through the plume of material associated with the urban centers and the industries out here. And then as the plane moved to the North, you can see the colors turning to cooler colors. And this is where it intercepted the plume of smoke that's coming from the Alaskan forest fires.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: One of the first practical applications that will be made with the ICARTT data is to human health. Cameron Wake and his students asked 600 volunteers to blow into an instrument called a spirometer that measures lung capacity.
Then they compared the data to see if there were more lung problems in places where the planes also turned up more pollution. Sometimes they were able to match the data down to specific zip codes.
CAMERON WAKE: We're building on previous studies, so our expectation really is that when we do have air pollution events, we're going to see a reduction in pulmonary function.
So one of the things that we hope to be able to do from this study is begin to pull apart different types of fine particles, and how those different types of fine particles might be affecting human health.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Wake believes we can better combat the health problems of pollution if we can find, and then attack, those pollutants which are having the most negative effect.
Another application of the data will begin this fall, when NOAA will start doing daily air quality forecasts for New England. It won't be as accurate as weather forecasting, but it is a start.
GREG CARMICHAEL: I think we're making good progress. I think over the next two to five years that we will have very, very good predictive capability.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Scientists want to predict air quality because, unlike the weather, if people know air pollution is coming, they can do something about it.
GREG CARMICHAEL: Let's say the news person comes on, the weather person comes on and says, "Tomorrow, here's the snapshot of what the air quality will be tomorrow. But here's what the air quality would be if 50 percent of the people decided not to drive." And so, if 50 percent of the people don't drive tomorrow, the air quality's going to get much better.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ultimately, the data collected by ICARTT may influence public policy. Tim Bates is NOAA's chief scientist on board the "Ron Brown."
TIM BATES: I think as we have more and more scientific information, as we can state with higher certainty that this is the way that our emissions and our pollution is affecting health and climate -- that decision-makers will have the information that they need. They have some difficult decisions to make. They certainly are going to cause some economic hardships to make cleaner air, and to reduce our influence on the changing climate.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And because atmospheric scientists now know air pollution is a global problem, they believe it will also demand global solutions. For example, Jacobs says that problems in the U.S. can never be solved unless the dramatically rising levels of pollution in Asia are also attacked.
DANIEL JACOBS: We have right now on the books from EPA a regulation that says that our national parks have to get natural visibility conditions by 2064. We'll never get back to natural visibility conditions because of pollution from Asia. In other words, either you engage with the Chinese in reducing their emissions, or you say, "Well, natural visibility isn't achievable."
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And atmospheric scientists say even with better science, the key to better air for everybody on the planet is cooperation between the nations.