Texas air pollution study gets help from the Hurricane Hunters

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:52 PM GMT on May 19, 2006

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Houston and Los Angeles rank as the two most polluted or cities in the U.S. To address the problem in Houston, a series of air pollution field studies have been run over the past decade in Texas to help understand the what is going on, and come up with the best emission control strategies needed to reduce ozone pollution levels. The TexAQS II Air Quality Field Study is that latest effort to do so. The field study, slated to run through September of this year, will take a broad number of surface based and airborne air pollution and meteorology measurements. A key tool in the study is one of NOAA's P-3 weather research aircraft, which will be specially outfitted as a state-of-the-art air pollution sampling platform. I flew on the NOAA P-3s in a number of such air pollution field studies during my stint with the hurricane hunters. My most memorable project came in 1989, when we flew over the Arctic Ice Cap to track "Arctic Haze". It was unbelievable to be flying over what should have been one of the cleanest places in the world, only to find visibility reduced to three miles in thick haze, due to pollution blown over the North Pole from industrial sources in Eastern Europe.


Figure 1. Areas of the U.S. in violation of the EPA standards for ozone pollution.

The data collected in the Texas study will be used to develop a variety of computer models needed to understand what is going on, and thereby recommend pollution control strategies. Ozone is not emitted directly, but is formed in a very complicated way from the "precursor" pollutants, Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC). It turns out that this formation process is extremely non-linear--which means that in some cases, reducing emissions of one of the "precursor" pollutants will actually increase ozone. As a result, you really have to understand the problem thoroughly before going to the expense of implementing emission controls of NOx or VOC in an effort to reduce ozone pollution.

Computer modeling efforts to understand pollution are of limited help, because we don't have a very good idea about how much pollution is being emitted. Each year, businesses are required to submit estimates of how much pollution they are emitting. These emission estimates, however, are not very accurate. For example, according to a story published May 7 in the Houston Chronicle, a British Petroleum refinery in Texas City (just south of Houston) reported that it emitted three times more formaldehyde and ammonia in 2004 than in 2003. The increase in emissions at this one plant was so large, that it distorted the data for refineries nationwide, according to the EPA. The Texas City plant accounted for the bulk of a 15 percent increase in emissions in 2004 that drove refinery pollution to its worst level since 2000. The problem is that the company likely underestimated its 2003 emissions. The emission estimates are all theoretical, and are not based on actual measurements of pollutant gases coming out of the stacks.

The article quotes Matt Fraser, an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, who says: "It's incredible that they were that far off. That's a huge increase in formaldehyde. It just shows you how little attention is being paid to getting emissions numbers right. And since all of our air-quality control strategies are based on that data, it makes you wonder." Well, the planners of the TexAQS II Air Quality Field Study are also wondering, which is why there is the necessity of doing this field study. The only sure way to know what's really going up into the air is to go out and measure it, and this summer's study should help the scientists and regulators figure out what the right steps are to control air pollution in one of our most polluted cities.

Unfortunately, the participation of NOAA's P-3 in the Texas study means that only one P-3 will be available for hurricane hunting this hurricane season. This worries me, because the P-3s are the best tool we have for hurricane reconnaissance. The Air Force C-130s do not have the state-of-the-art radar systems like the P-3s carry, nor the new SFMR Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer instrument that can measure surface winds speeds anywhere in a storm. Will participation of the P-3 in this air pollution study save more lives and property than if the aircraft participated in hurricane hunting this Fall? I think that is probably the case, but it is definitely a gamble that I'm uncomfortable with.

Jeff Masters

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405. hurricanechaser
11:40 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
Hey St. Simons,

I had totally lost track honestly and can't believe the official death toll equals the Lake Ochobee hurricane of 1928 with all those still missing.

Do you know if they suspect many or hopefully the vast majority might be unaccounted for due to displacement all over the country rather than fatalities?

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403. NOLAinNC
7:38 PM EDT on May 21, 2006
Two great post, StSimons. The "still missing" number is tragic. I can't believe it, it just makes me so sad.

You are right about emmissions as well. We definitely have the technology.

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401. SMU88
11:31 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
Thank you bamaweatherwatcher.
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398. bamaweatherwatcher
11:19 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
SMU88,
this from NHC, it the storms in the gulf.

BIGGEST CHANGE TO THE WEATHER SINCE YESTERDAY IS A SLUG OF
DEEP-LAYERED MOISTURE THAT HAS ENTERED THE AREA S OF 25N E OF
94.5W. ISOLATED SHOWERS ARE BENEATH THE CLOUD CANOPY WITH TSTMS
CLOSE TO ENTERING THE STRAITS OF FLORIDA. THIS MOISTURE...
ASSOCIATED WITH THE REMNANTS OF LAST WEEK'S COLD FRONT NOW A
TROUGH...IS BEING PULLED INTO THE REGION DUE TO SLY WINDS TO THE
E OF A MID/UPPER LOW THAT HAS FORMED NEAR NE MEXICO AROUND
24N97W.
THIS MOISTURE SHOULD MAKE ITS WAY INTO THE CENTRAL GULF
REGION MOSTLY E OF 92W S OF 28N FOR THE EARLY PART OF THE WEEK..
PROBABLY BRINGING MUCH NEEDED RAIN TO S THEN CENTRAL FLORIDA.
WEAK HIGH PRESSURE IS JUST OFFSHORE OF NW FLORIDA NEAR 28N86.5W
AND SHOULD REMAIN NEARLY STATIONARY WITH GENERALLY LIGHT WINDS.
A LONE CLUSTER OF TSTMS IS NEAR 27.5N95W IN THE NW GULF NEAR THE
UPPER LOW.

If the sheer wasn't too high could this have formed into a storm?

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397. HillsboroughBay
7:18 PM EDT on May 21, 2006
He's a full week EARLY! Sigh!
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396. SMU88
10:57 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
Where are these storms coming from that are in the Gulf? Looks like another raining week similar to last week.
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395. bamaweatherwatcher
10:40 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
swlaagie,
i just read over the discussions for rita for the time period your talking about. This is just a guess.

Looks like Rita turned wednesday evening but NHC thought it was a wobble. In the next discussion that had it going in the direction of that supposed wobble. This was at 5pm and 11pm est respectivly.
They did say that the GFS and GDFL had it going that far east at that time but the rest of the models stayed clustered to the west. They kept the official forcast track to the west of the model envelope, then when they figured rita was wobbling, they changed the direction.
long story short it was a problem of inital direction. The two steering factors were a upper level ridge over the south east and a high pressure over texas that moved east allowing Rita to turn north.

Bama
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394. hurricanechaser
10:39 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
Hey WSI,

I lost my post but wanted to say I totally agree and to accept responsibility for engaging in such actions myself for two wrongs do not make a right and even though I keep defending the NHC against what I have consider unfair accusations each time that web page is presented, I am left with little choice in my own rebuttal than to find myself NOT saying encouraging things myself.

In short, we ALL need to live by the old adage that if we can't say something nice about another to simply not say anything at all.

With that in mind, I do regret in hindsight for once again responding to the NHC and STORMTOP comparisons.

Thanks for your maturity and for a much needed post in my humble opinion to remind all of us.


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393. swlaaggie
4:40 PM CST on May 21, 2006
Gotta go. Fiancee woke up from nap starving and this hunter-gatherer has to get moving. Have a great evening everyone and have some fun.
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392. swlaaggie
4:36 PM CST on May 21, 2006
Nola,

Agree. Cameron and Holly Beach, Louisiana were wiped out from Rita. I mean nothing left. Very little, if anything, was reported about these two areas. Very, very sad. Some areas along the immediate coastline still have no electricity but they are a stubborn lot and they will rebuild.
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391. hurricanechaser
10:36 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
Hey WSI,

Very well said and in retrospect I personally wish I had not chosen to defend the HC against what I considered unfair attacks but in doing so I am left with no choice but to say something that isn't encouraging about another myself and like the old saying goes two wrongs do not make a right.

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390. bamaweatherwatcher
10:33 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
anybody have an answer for my question above?
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389. NOLAinNC
6:37 PM EDT on May 21, 2006
Got is WSI. I slipped. Sorry.
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388. NOLAinNC
6:34 PM EDT on May 21, 2006
swlaggie,

I have also noticed that in reference to Katrina, much of the attention is paid to New Orleans, when entire communities along the Gulf, east of New Orleans were virtually wiped off the map. I think it has something to do with the notoriety of the location, too.

-NOLA
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387. louastu
10:30 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
It is possible that the final stats are out, but my if you look at the NHC final reports on big storms, they always seem to update at a later date.

The NHC report on 2004's Ivan for example, was on December 16, 2004, and was last updated on May 27, 2005.
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386. WSI
10:31 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
Can we just stop the fighting please? If someone wants to argue, say your peace and let it be. Don't drag it out. If it must continue, do it private e-mails. It is DESTROYING the blogs. Please.
385. hurricanechaser
10:30 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
Hey Louastu,

I need to clarify that I was still talking about North of Stuart, Fl. because Andrew of course was an East coast category five south of there in 1992 and was noting the infrequency of major East Coast U.S. landfalls north of South Fl.
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384. swlaaggie
4:24 PM CST on May 21, 2006
Louastu,

Is there still data being generated associated with Rita? More specifically, do the studies continue after the NHC issues their final report or are you referring to financial issues?

In any case, Rita is not discussed very much, relatively speaking. I guess it's because our storm clean-up efforts were managed at the local level extrememely well. In other words, despite the heavy damage, the area leaders did an exceptional job of managing the problems and that's not very news-worthy. I look forward to your report.
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382. NOLAinNC
6:28 PM EDT on May 21, 2006
Michael,
They still have not found all of the missing. The death toll is not final yet. :(

-NOLA
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380. hurricanechaser
10:24 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
Hey Louastu,

Another fascinating and historical significance of Fran is that she is the last major hurricane to make a U.S. landfall north of Stuart, Fl. where Jeanne made landfall to the best of my recolection in 2004.

She is also the only one since Hugo in 1989 as well and only one of these two that made a U.S. East coast landfall since Gloria in 1985 and Donna in 1960.

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378. louastu
10:21 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
I will probably report on Rita sometime in 2007. I would like to have the final statistics before posting about any of the 2005 storms.
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376. swlaaggie
4:13 PM CST on May 21, 2006
Hi everyone and holy smokes. We are not working and playing well with others today, are we?

Very nice blog Louastu. Hope you choose to report on Rita someday.

I think, having lived it, that there must have been some seriously confusing issues with the Rita forecast. We all thought, on a Wednesday night, that Rita was headed to Matagorda and we woke up Thursday morning under a mandatory evacuation order in Lake Charles. I wonder what factors caused the major switch in forecasted path over just an eight hour period.
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375. louastu
10:13 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
cyclonebuster,

My goal is not to censor you. I respect your oppinion when it comes to the tunnels. I ask that you respect my desire not to hear any more about the tunnels though. I have flagged several of your posts as obscene because they were, in my oppinion, very nasty remarks.
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374. bamaweatherwatcher
10:14 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
question:
Im trying to learn a little more about pressure maps and what you look for a tropical storm. Now I know you look for a low at the surface. I also know that usually for a healthy storm you need a high pressure above it. my question at level does this high form? What level is the best to look at (as in mb)?

also looking for a good a site that has pressure maps of the caribbean and tropical alantic on it. One without all the fancy computer enhancements, just the data. Any help?
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371. louastu
10:05 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
I saw it. I flagged several post as obscene (lots of posts from cyclonebuster, and 1 of yours which was completely out of line in my oppinion).

Thanks for the compliment.

Fran is not a storm that many people mention when they are talking about east coast hurricanes. This is possibly due to more recent storms such as Floyd and Isabel.
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369. NOLAinNC
6:00 PM EDT on May 21, 2006
lou,

I think there are a number of tweens and teens on this site, which I applaud - this can be very educational. But the sparring is tiresome and silly, and probably reflects some immaturity.

I'm not here for amateur forecasts, I am here to learn about weather, so it doesn't matter to me who gets it right. I grew up in a time when the weatherman (which is what we called him) drew a dotted line on a chart showing where he thought a hurricane was going. Of course, everyone knew there was a huge margin of error and we all planned accordingly. We are truly blessed to have access to the kind of information we have today, we are blessed to have this site, and we are all in the same boat so to speak. We don't really need the religious rants, insults and infighting.
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367. tornadoty
9:58 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
Well, the fighting has started yet again! Must be nearing hurricane season!
366. louastu
9:58 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
Well, I just got back and all I can say is, wow.

I would have thought that you could all act like adults in here (I am assuming that everyone here is 18 or older).
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362. StormJunkie
9:36 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
sorry....four not for.
Member Since: August 17, 2005 Posts: 26 Comments: 16874
361. StormJunkie
9:33 PM GMT on May 21, 2006
Micheal you can flag it as many times as you want, but until for other usernames flag it, the post will not go away.

SJ

StormJunkie.com
Member Since: August 17, 2005 Posts: 26 Comments: 16874

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.