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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211. Alec
10:02 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
Posted By: STORMTOP at 10:02 PM EDT on May 20, 2006.
alex you are the one that always get things wrong and texas to the fla panhandale is not the northern gulf coast its the nw ne and central alex...you need to study a little more if you are going to be a meteoroligists

ST, first of all thats a lie....If i get everything wrong then I guess last yr when I said Emily would hit Mexico was a lie....yeah right!......Dont feel the urge to imply to everyone that im stupid.....be a little more RESPECTFUL...and stop referencing me in most of your posts...
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210. WSI
2:03 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
ST, quit being so rude and confrontational.


meteoroligists

How do you know he can't be one if you can't even spell it ST?
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208. Alec
10:00 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
Hey louastu, yes but from the above links I posted above, the Gulf is not sufficient enough to even sustain a hurricane all the way to Texas or the FL panhandle like ST referenced...
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207. STORMTOP
1:57 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
alex you are the one that always get things wrong and texas to the fla panhandale is not the northern gulf coast its the nw ne and central alex...you need to study a little more if you are going to be a meteoroligists...
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206. WSI
2:00 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
I think it's unwise *not* to use models, as well as everything else. The best and brightest use models as well as every other piece of information they can get their hands on.
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205. louastu
2:01 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
Hey, how's it goin'? Have you checked out my blog yet?
203. louastu
1:56 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
It is not always a bad idea to expect the worst.
202. Alec
9:49 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
Posted By: STORMTOP at 9:36 PM EDT on May 20, 2006.
you guys need to look at the situation better i am not forecasting this to be a major hurricane alex i have no clue where you got that from..i thought you were smarter then that...i just said it could be a minmal hurricane or a strong tropical storm sometime on thursday or friday...just keep in touch with my bulletins throughout the coming week..alex the shear will die within the next 48 hours and this will allow the 1010mb low to get its act together...i did not say the northern gulf coast alex you need to learn how to read i said from texas to the fla panhandle TO BE ON ALERT....to me thats the ne north central and nw gulf of mexico...alex you need to study your geography....this has been a bulletin bt stormtops weather office...002037

Stormtop, why do you tend to always reference me for EVERTHING? Texas to the FL Panhandle is GENERALLY the northern Gulf region.....And another thing, I dont think you read my last posts....When you say "serious situation" kinda makes me think you mean something "explosive".....Another thing, everyone else on here uses models(including lefty, who referenced to them alot last yr) Why do you single me out that I always rely on models when everyone else uses them too?
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201. WSI
1:44 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
"this could be very serious"

"i am not forecasting this to be a major hurricane alex i have no clue where you got that from"


Well respectfully ST, you usually have a flair for the dramatic.
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198. StormJunkie
1:32 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
Evening all.

I say we will have a at least one June storm.

Good to see you SSIG.

StormJunkie.com

Good night.
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197. STORMTOP
1:27 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
you guys need to look at the situation better i am not forecasting this to be a major hurricane alex i have no clue where you got that from..i thought you were smarter then that...i just said it could be a minmal hurricane or a strong tropical storm sometime on thursday or friday...just keep in touch with my bulletins throughout the coming week..alex the shear will die within the next 48 hours and this will allow the 1010mb low to get its act together...i did not say the northern gulf coast alex you need to learn how to read i said from texas to the fla panhandle TO BE ON ALERT....to me thats the ne north central and nw gulf of mexico...alex you need to study your geography....this has been a bulletin bt stormtops weather office...002037
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195. ForecasterColby
1:29 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
Maybe, but I'd say its likely we'll see at least one through June. Stimons, can you provide a source for that? CO2 does not readily decompose, AFAIK.
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193. Alec
9:20 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
SST link

Notice most of the Gulf is relatively cool(except for the Bay of Campeche and the loop current)...
Just South of LA the depth of warm water:link Notice the heat content in this region along with most of the Gulf is weak...
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191. Alec
9:17 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
Stormtop, another thing is the northern Gulf of Mexico has very cool SST's(mid to upper 70's).....so even if a depression even decided to form, it would probably fizzle out by the time it got to the northern Gulf coast....I believe there will be no Alberto for a while...
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190. ForecasterColby
1:16 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
Yucatan channel is 27C, barely warm enough to support a TS.



Not to alarm, but...where did the subtropical jet go?
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189. Alec
9:11 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
ST, I have analyzed the Yucatan Channel temps...they are nowhere near boiling..could you post your references?
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188. ForecasterColby
1:12 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
ST, the Gulf won't support much more than a minimal hurricane ATM. That trough is going to be attached to a front, any low that forms along it will be cold-core and asymmetric.
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187. ForecasterColby
1:02 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
Alec - "STORMTOP, what does "001855" stand for exactly?"

It's STORMTOP wanting to feel more official ;)
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186. STORMTOP
1:03 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
the high that is over us right now is going to be moving out not protecting the gulf coast..there will be a trough coming down from the rockies sometime on thursday and if a depression forms in the gulf like im expecting it to the trough will draw it north towards the gulfcoast...the high will build in over texas giving them hot temps ....gentlemen the gulf is open for business ...alex u better check the temps again in the yucatan channel..im forecasting this 1010 mb low to move sloly nw which means less shear and like i said the temps will support tropical activity..im on top of the situation and i will break in if conditions warrant....i hiope you understand this better now.if not email stormtop....
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185. Alec
9:03 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
I see a strong high over the Gulf and looks like it will hold strong for a while......
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184. ForecasterColby
1:00 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
While it is true that the blue states have a visible correlation with pollution, this is mostly because urban areas tend to be liberal. I don't know that that really means too much. I do find it funny that people like a certain D-CA finds it okay to tell me (R-FL) to tell me to clean up my act, though.
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183. Weather456
8:57 PM AST on May 20, 2006
storm top is it possible that you can post a diagram or image of the conditions setting up.
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182. ForecasterColby
12:51 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
Note also that it takes one volume of O2 to produce one volume of CO2, so increasing the CO2 concentration to 3% would presumably reduce the oxygen concentration from 21% to 18%. Again, not fatal in itself, but not especially healthful. Altitude sickness would also set in at lower altitudes; better sell that Colorado real estate, or hope that sea levels rise a LOT. :-)

Oxygen sickness doesn't set in until your O2 levels are way, way lower. *grabs formulas, does a little math* At Denver's altitude, roughly a sixth of the atmosphere is gone for purposes of breathing. 21% -> 18% (which is way beyond even the most extreme estimates) would only be equivilent to roughly a 4000ft rise in altitude. Denver wouldn't be real nice, but most of the world's population lives at fairly low (a few hundred ft) altitudes, where the effect would be tiny.

Assuming you're willing to truck in the necessary gigatons of fertilizer for land that has so far supported only a relatively sparse ecosystem. And assuming changing weather patterns don't turn much of Russia into bone-dry desert.

Who says plants need fertilizer to grow? What do you think plants did before mankind?

Probably not. But it's quite plausible that it could kill a bunch of us (or, if you'd prefer, "them"), and make a bunch more of us incrementally more miserable.

How does it kill them? Do they get caught in a half-inch-per-year sea level rise and drown?
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181. Alec
8:41 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
STORMTOP, what does "001855" stand for exactly?
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180. WSI
12:36 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
".this could be very serious i dont like the way things are setting up in the gulf"


Yeah, sounds like Stormtop alright. :)
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179. jeffB
12:11 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
LemonAromatique wrote:

Even if we did manage to slow down the emission of CO2, where would the excess go?

I don't understand what you're asking here. If we emit less, there'll be less "excess" to go anywhere. Are you talking about removing CO2 that's already in the air?

Also, I noticed a bit of a flaw in the math here:

Not really a flaw in the math, but an oversight in the chemistry. :-) COAL is approximately pure carbon, and consumes approximately one volume of O2 for each volume of CO2 its combustion produces. Gasoline, diesel and so forth are approximately (CH2)n, and consume approximately 1.5 volumes of O2 for each volume of CO2 (and equal volume of steam) their combustion produces.
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178. Alec
8:12 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
Posted By: STORMTOP at 11:46 PM GMT on May 20, 2006.
you need to watch the tropics very closely this week something will form in the yucatan channel.there is 1010mb low south of the western tip of cuba will be moving over less shear and boiling temps...all interests should keep in touch with stormtops advisories from texas to the fla panhandle...this could be very serious i dont like the way things are setting up in the gulf...stay tuned people stormtop is well aware of the situation and will break in with future bulletins if it becomes necessary.....001855


What do you mean serious? The water temps near the Yucatan channel are near 81-82 degrees....
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177. Skyepony (Mod)
12:06 AM GMT on May 21, 2006
well it's offical~ April was the warmest April for the US on record. It also was the 7th warmest April since 1880 for the land & sea of the earth.

Check out NOAA's April wrap up here.
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176. STORMTOP
11:46 PM GMT on May 20, 2006
you need to watch the tropics very closely this week something will form in the yucatan channel.there is 1010mb low south of the western tip of cuba will be moving over less shear and boiling temps...all interests should keep in touch with stormtops advisories from texas to the fla panhandle...this could be very serious i dont like the way things are setting up in the gulf...stay tuned people stormtop is well aware of the situation and will break in with future bulletins if it becomes necessary.....001855
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175. ndcohn
11:38 PM GMT on May 20, 2006
http://www.ssd.noaa.gov/goes/east/watl/loop-vis.html

14N, 92W - just south of guatamala/mexican border
small, but noticable area of cyclonic turning
zooming in might make it more noticable.
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174. Weather456
7:36 PM AST on May 20, 2006
Noaa Hurricane Preparedness Week is 21 May to the 2th May.....next week.
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173. RL3AO
5:45 PM CDT on May 20, 2006
BARBARO!
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172. LemonAromatique
9:50 PM GMT on May 20, 2006
oops. divide the oxygen use and CO2 production in that last paragraph by 2. It's not 50 O2s, it's 25.
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171. seflagamma
5:49 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
Atmos

Thank you so much for answering my question!!

Kept waiting for one of you that knows these things to come back to the blogs!!!

Appreciate it!
Gamma
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170. atmosweather
5:38 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
"Weather folks,

Is there anything to that cloudy cluster between Haiti and the lower Bahamas??? I see it on radar and sat maps...just a small round circle of clouds... just wondering what you all think?"



That is just a small cluster of showers that is tailed to the end of the cold front that passed through the Gulf and Caribbean earlier this week. It should lift north by tomorrow.
Member Since: September 24, 2005 Posts: 33 Comments: 9265
169. LemonAromatique
8:17 PM GMT on May 20, 2006
Even if we did manage to slow down the emission of CO2, where would the excess go? Probably the two easiest places for it to go would be

A: Tree respiration. Sure, we have plenty left, but convincing people to both quite driving so much and quit cutting down all the trees seems a bit harder than just getting some people to take a bus.

or

B: The ocean. Which would in turn raise the acidity of the water and piss off a lot of fish since when you dissolve CO2 in water, you end up with carbonic acid (H2CO3).

Also, I noticed a bit of a flaw in the math here:

Note also that it takes one volume of O2 to produce one volume of CO2, so increasing the CO2 concentration to 3% would presumably reduce the oxygen concentration from 21% to 18%. Again, not fatal in itself, but not especially healthful. )

For the most part, burning uses MUCH more oxygen than the carbon dioxide it produces. For example, the combustion of butane goes by this reaction

2 C4H10 + 13 O2 -> 8 CO2 + 10 H20

So, assuming that we're burning only butane, that's still 1.625 L O2 burned for every CO2 produced.
Now, gasoline is mostly heavier hydrocarbons, so using octane for example
2C8H18 + 50O2 -> 16 CO2 + 18 H20

We end up burning 2.7 liters of oxygen for every liter of CO2 formed.

Presuming that all gasoline is nothing but octane, a 20 liter gas tank will consume 3,446.681 liters of O2 and produce 1,276.548 liters of CO2.



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168. seflagamma
4:17 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
Weather folks,

Is there anything to that cloudy cluster between Haiti and the lower Bahamas??? I see it on radar and sat maps...just a small round circle of clouds... just wondering what you all think?
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167. StormJunkie
7:59 PM GMT on May 20, 2006
Thanks David that is cool.

sj
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165. jeffB
5:26 PM GMT on May 20, 2006
ForecasterColby wrote:

*shrugs* CO2 isn't directly harmful to humans, even in concentrations of a few percent (a hundred or more times current levels). The only reason it would be harmful is if there were enough to crowd out the Oxygen, which I doubt anyone seriously thinks is happening.

You're entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. :-)

http://www.epa.gov/ozone/snap/fire/co2/appendixb.pdf

3% CO2 won't kill you directly, but it'll make you pretty miserable, especially if you try to exercise. Just what we need -- more of an excuse to stay sedentary!

Note also that it takes one volume of O2 to produce one volume of CO2, so increasing the CO2 concentration to 3% would presumably reduce the oxygen concentration from 21% to 18%. Again, not fatal in itself, but not especially healthful. Altitude sickness would also set in at lower altitudes; better sell that Colorado real estate, or hope that sea levels rise a LOT. :-)

Allow me to clarify - I do think that polluting is a bad thing. I would certainly like to never see another forest cut down, and to replant many. These are good things. What I'm arguing against is not that there's a problem, but that many are blowing it up to far more than it is.

On this, we agree. But I also argue that many are dismissing it as far less than it is.

Even if global temperatures rise, it will have a limited effect on humankind. If temperatures rise, say, 5C, then maybe north Africa and most of the rest of the tropics become unbearably hot - but Russia becomes arable. That's a LOT of agricultural space.

Assuming you're willing to truck in the necessary gigatons of fertilizer for land that has so far supported only a relatively sparse ecosystem. And assuming changing weather patterns don't turn much of Russia into bone-dry desert.

Again, I do not think that humankind, or even smaller groups, are in any serious danger from global warming. Is it good? Probably not. Will it kill us all? No.

Probably not. But it's quite plausible that it could kill a bunch of us (or, if you'd prefer, "them"), and make a bunch more of us incrementally more miserable.
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164. jeffB
5:04 PM GMT on May 20, 2006
seflagamma wrote:

Funny how that polution map shapes out. Some, but not all of the worse pollution is in the areas that are the most blue politically....and some of the cleanest areas are red politically.

Naturally, since most of the people are in the areas that are the most blue politically. Is it really a surprise to anyone that, say, Wyoming, with a population density of 5.1 people/square mile, has cleaner air than Massachusetts, with more than 800/sq.mi.?

Now, if you'd like to speculate about causal relationships between population density and political affiliation, feel free. But if you're suggesting based on this map that Democrats tend to pollute more than Republicans, you're, um, skipping more than a few steps in your reasoning. :-)
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162. lightning10
5:12 PM GMT on May 20, 2006
Ya but blue states have the largest populations.
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161. seflagamma
12:51 PM EDT on May 20, 2006
Good Saturday AFternoon everyone,

Just my daily check-in at Dr Master's blog to see what is going on. Good discussions!!And now I guess I must be sure and check out the topics next week!!!

Speaking about Gore's Movie, Funny how that polution map shapes out. Some, but not all of the worse pollution is in the areas that are the most blue politically....and some of the cleanest areas are red politically. Someone needs to be cleaning up their own backyards before telling others what to do... I know I am going to regret saying this. Apologize to anyone I offended but look at the map.

(dare I hit enter and let this go?)
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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.

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