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Texas air pollution study gets help from the Hurricane Hunters

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

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

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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61. sayhuh
2:47 PM CST on May 19, 2006

Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
60. louastu
8:37 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Well, I am back. I got lucky, and didn't have to go to the store.
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59. swlaaggie
2:28 PM CST on May 19, 2006
Hi everyone,

Have you ever tried to take a well earned half a day off just so your cell shakes apart from the dang calls from work?

Not going to get sucked back in to the pollution discussion other than to say everyone makes great points(albeit, conspiracy theory logic is a stretch).

I just wanted to say thanks for the replies to the storm surge question. Very puzzling and I need to know more. NOLA, thanks for the good luck comment. We have fixed everything(and believe me, we got our stuff scattered). Very nervous about this year.

Hope everyone has a WONDERFUL and safe weekend.
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58. atmosweather
4:16 PM EDT on May 19, 2006
In some rare cases, an extremely deep tropical system (sub 900 mb) can erode a 1020-1024 ridge of high pressures slightly. However, 99% of the time tropical systems are steered by areas of high pressure at the surface. Now, if a storm of any strength approached an area oh high pressure head on, it will stall if the area closest to the poles has weak steering currents (such as another high pressure north of the high that the storm is approaching). I hope I have explained this clearly; its quite complicated.
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57. StormJunkie
8:11 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Great point Jeff.
I had a similar thought earlier.

We are always disucssing why the globe is warming, and even arguing over it. This is what the media(news, govt, hollywood) is pushing. I say it is great to discuss why the globe is warming, but why are we not talking about and implementing what actions we are going to need to take in order to ensure the survival of our species?

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56. StormJunkie
7:55 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Afternoon all.

Have a question for ya'll

At what point will a hurricane, say a 940 - 950 cat three, push through a higher pressure, or at what point will a high be strong enough to block a storm. 1012? 1020?

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55. jeffB
7:51 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
gcain wrote:

...over the counter drugs must be relatively safe because of federal regs, etc...but the final reason that drug companies produce safe products is because they know that consumer will boycott their products if there is ample prove that the drugs are dangerous or they will face civil legal action, etc...

I used to believe the same thing, but I've concluded that it simply isn't true. When was the last time you heard about a cigarette boycott? Or a boycott of Nyquil, whose active ingredients include a hefty dose of acetaminophen and alcohol, even though that combination is known to cause severe liver damage with even a mild overdose? Or a boycott of fast food, or junk food, or soft drinks?

People tend to believe what they're told. If nine out of ten scientific studies say a product is harmful, but ten out of ten commercials remind you how wonderful it is -- well, how many commercials does the average person see in a day, and how many scientific papers does he/she read?
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54. louastu
7:41 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
I posted my first entry in my blog earlier today. I would like everyone to stop by there and read my little report.

Comments and suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

I will be gone for a couple of hours, but when I get back I will be sure to read all comments/suggestions.
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53. Weather456
3:45 PM AST on May 19, 2006
from the tropical weather discussion 2:05pm EST 19 May 2006




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52. squeak
2:45 PM CDT on May 19, 2006
For aggie who was asking about storm surge numbers, the Lake Charles NWS Rita report:

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51. bamaweatherwatcher
7:35 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
getting a lot of conspiracy thoery in here. Where is the weather talk. its much less stressful.
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50. gcain
6:37 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
NOLA: i agree on your research, data point...if large companies conspire to hide the truth (a la drugs, pollution, and many other examples), then we are in big trouble...that might be the case in the whole "global warming" debate...who is really controling the research? Large corporations, universities (whose funds come from...), government (who is too often in bed with...), etc...fixing that one is a real headache...where is my aspirin?
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49. NOLAinNC
2:32 PM EDT on May 19, 2006
You are right, gcain. That is reality. But people need good (true) information in order to make informed decisions. If a company is so big and connected that it can hide research, data, etc, then consumers may not be able to "connect the dots" in order to see what is really happening.
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48. gcain
6:18 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
I'll get in at the end (probably) of the air pollution discussion. It seems to me that gov't regulation can only take us so far and not far enough--for sure. The final answer is that companies must see some profit in cutting emissions and otherwise controling pollution. That "profit motive" must come from consumers who demand companies be responsible...I'll throw in one example...over the counter drugs must be relatively safe because of federal regs, etc...but the final reason that drug companies produce safe products is because they know that consumer will boycott their products if there is ample prove that the drugs are dangerous or they will face civil legal action, etc...This same control must come for companies polluting the air...the consumer must be the final leg of triangle...or the other two don't connect. The consumer pushes both the politican and the businessman to do the right thing. If the public is willing to ignore the problem so will the politican and the businessman...that's the way our "regulated" capitalistic system works.
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47. franck
6:18 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
NOLA..you are absolutely correct, but that is anathema to capitalistic thought.
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46. NOLAinNC
2:09 PM EDT on May 19, 2006

I'm not sure about the storm surge issue. My point is that if a healthy economy means an unhealthy environment, then we have our priorities out of whack and we should have a broader definition of healthy economy.

I believe that costs associated with damaging the environment ought to be attached to the ultimate cost of the product.

Good luck this hurricane season, BTW!

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45. squeak
1:06 PM CDT on May 19, 2006
swlaaggie -- find out your elevation from topozone.com. Also consider that the actual elevation at this time may be lower due to subsidence (LA should change the logo on its car tags to "The Sinking State").

If you then post your city I can help you find out about storm tide elevations from Rita in your area.
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44. ForecasterColby
6:05 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Well...THAT was random.

That disturbance is a ULL, shear is huge over it anyway.
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41. swlaaggie
11:30 AM CST on May 19, 2006
Different subject/different question:

I live in SW Louisiana and my home is a grand total of about 7 feet above sea level(this may be overstating it). When Rita was headed our way, we evacuated(hauled butt). Before she made landfall, the local media said that the storm was likely to have a 10-15 foot surge and that our downtown area(even further north of my home) could have 5-6 feet of water in the street.

So I sat in Dallas for two days thinking my home was toast. Although hammered from wind, we did not flood and the reported surge was indeed 10-15 feet.

How in the world did my home not flood if I am less than 10 feet above sea level? There has got to be more to the surge issue than surge height and sea-level location.

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40. swlaaggie
10:58 AM CST on May 19, 2006
Final post today(everyone gives collective sigh of relief here) on the accountability of operating companies.

Let's assume that we do beef up emission and performance standards and that companies increase operating budgets to comply. Let's also assume that the compliance governing agencies(the govt.) beef up monitoring and enforcement(tax increases or change tax spending priorities). Finally, let's assume that the operating companies are not allowed to pass on these costs to the public(now it's getting ugly says mother market).

I'm afraid that the net result would be lower earnings from the operating copmanies. With those lower earnings comes the very real threat of lower tax revenues to the govt. and reduction in force associated with employment opportunities. Unemployment means a further hit to the economy and lower tax revenues means a reduction in goods and services from both local, state and national governments.

Bottom line, again, is that our wallets and purses may be hit far harder than you would think on the surface and that this is a VERY complicated and far reaching issue.

Thanks for your patience.
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39. swlaaggie
10:48 AM CST on May 19, 2006

I firmly beleive that this is exactly the choice that we will have to make. My choice jives with yours.

Many others on this blog have also stated that nuclear power might be the answer. So I guess the other variable that we have to throw into our decision making equation is risk.

For many, these clean air/water may not equal increasing energy costs and/or risk.
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38. JeffK
12:41 PM EDT on May 19, 2006
To learn more about what the states in the eastern US are doing to address air pollution, stay tuned to the results of the June 6-7, 2006 Ozone Transport Commission meetings in Boston. Their work with the midwest states called the State Collaborative (superregional) is pretty interesting.


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37. NOLAinNC
12:31 PM EDT on May 19, 2006
Hey Squeak,
I agree with your no-nonsense, common sense approach. It is shame we haven't gotten to the point where the people running the companies and producing ANY emissions aren't more concerned for the air we all breathe and the future of the environment. I would rather live in a smaller house, have fewer "things" and breathe clean air and drink clean water.

Not to change the subject, but check this out:

Statement as of 8:33 am EDT on May 19, 2006

... A little snow occurred in the highest elevations...

We had three reports this morning of snow at the highest elevations
in the northern mountains of North Carolina. One report from an
observer who can see Roan Mountain... on the Mitchell County North
Carolina and Carter County Tennessee border... of a good dusting of
snow above about 5800 feet with rime ice in the trees. Beech
Mountain... in northern Avery County... had less than a quarter of an
inch of snow late last night with a low of 32 degrees. Mount
Mitchell... in Yancey County... had a trace of snow late last night as
well with a low of 28 degrees.
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36. swlaaggie
10:20 AM CST on May 19, 2006

I agree. However, how do you ensure that the companies don't pass along their associated costs to you?

Also, my experience is that it is somewhat unfair to throw the whole issue in the lap of the operating company. As part of the solution, you must also beef up enforcement. This costs money - your tax money.

Are you(for example only) ready to pay more at the pump for cleaner air?

Finally, it's not just refineries. It's chemical plants, gas plants, cogen facilities, etc. as well. Those facilities that make your plastic, clean and process the gas you use in your home, and generate the electricity that you use everywhere you go.
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35. rwdobson
4:22 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Squeak, I agree. Typically, the regulated industries do pay for such monitoring programs, as they should. Most of the emission factors EPA uses are from industry-funded research that is supervised by EPA.

On the other hand, sometimes people want the government to do some or all of the work, because it seems more impartial if industry is not paying for it...so there's a balance.

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34. squeak
11:16 AM CDT on May 19, 2006
"the refineries should be doing more to monitor their pollution, but that should happen in conjunction with this airplane study, not as an alternative to it."

I feel strongly that the government should not be required to take up the slack. The companies that are generating the pollution should be paying for the programs to monitor it.
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33. rwdobson
4:17 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Michael, the St Louis area also has one of the few places in the country still out of attainment for airborne lead...Herculaneum, just to the south.
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31. swlaaggie
9:52 AM CST on May 19, 2006
They're just going to do nothing, and wait for the government to foot the expense....

Government = you and me

This will happen via your taxes and the costs of the products these facilities produce.

I am a chemical engineer working in the natural gas industry(21 years). The stacks that Dr. Master's references are probably flares. These are emergency equipment items that are typically permitted with the state where they are installed. The permits are based on estimated flare rates.

There are also estimates for VOCs through equipment and piping which are tested yearly and audited internally and by regulatory agencies. Same applies for waste disposal such as lube oils, spent chemicals and waste waters. The testing reports are submitted to the governing agency for a given facility.

Dr. Master's is correct. For the most part, these are paper estimates. Additionally, the accuracy of actual emmissions is a strong function of the integrity of the operating company. I would be very interested to know what BP was permitted for and if any fines were levied for exceeding their permit(if indeed they did so).

Long-winded way of saying that these issues are pretty complicated and the consequences of enforcement, and non-enforcement, are not as straight-forward as we might think.
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30. JeffK
12:09 PM EDT on May 19, 2006
Also, check out...Haze Cam Net


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29. lightning10
3:55 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Sounds like this strom might delay the fireseason a little bit in So Cal

... An unusually late season storm may bring heavy rain to
southwestern California late this weekend...

An unseasonably strong and cold upper low was taking shape in the
eastern Pacific this morning. This storm system is forecast to
continue to gather strength and moisture as it slowly drops
southward to a position several hundred miles west of San Francisco
by late tonight. The upper low is forecast to remain nearly
stationary Saturday and Saturday night... with an increasingly
moist and organized surface front developing off the West Coast.

This frontal system is expected to push into southwestern California
on Sunday... causing rain to become likely across the area. A few
computer weather models are indicating that the front will enhance
quite a bit as it moves across the area late Sunday and Sunday
night... possibly bringing heavy rain and even some thunderstorms to
the region. Strong low level southerly flow ahead of the front will
cause wind gusts over 40 mph in the mountains... with gusty winds
likely in many coastal and valley areas Sunday into Sunday night. In
addition... the southerly flow will further enhance rainfall in and
below terrain with a south or southwest exposure to the ocean.

Rain should turn to showers across the area fairly early Monday
morning as the front moves eastward. Since the system has not yet
completely developed... its evolution and its eventual effects on the
weather in southwestern California are still somewhat in question.
However... the potential exists for a fairly good late season soaking
across the area Sunday into early Monday. Very preliminary estimates
of rainfall with this storm are for one half to one inch in coastal
and valley areas... with one to three inches in the foothills and
mountains. Higher amounts are possible in orographically favored
locations. Snow levels will likely be above 7500 feet through
Sunday... then could lower to 6000 feet Sunday night... with several
inches of snow possible above this level.

Residents of southwestern California are urged to stay tuned to
later forecasts and statements concerning this late season storm
system. Stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio or your favorite media
outlet through the weekend.
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28. rwdobson
3:50 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
you're right squeak. why bother doing any research? let's just slap controls on everything across the board. who cares if these controls don't actually help, or end up making things worse?

I agree that refineries should be tightly regulated, but we do have to base that on real knowledge. And the refineries should be doing more to monitor their pollution, but that should happen in conjunction with this airplane study, not as an alternative to it.

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27. JeffK
3:53 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
To see the 2006 state of the air report, with city rankings, see....

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26. louastu
3:47 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Ok... Why can't a C-130 do the air pollution research?
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25. squeak
10:42 AM CDT on May 19, 2006
Sorry -- I'll try to not be so subtle.

The study will not help change the fact that there is pollution in Houston. The only thing that will help change that, is for the companies that are generating the pollution to stop doing so. The way it works right now, is that studies like this are slated to occur because those companies are not even bothering to monitor what pollution they are generating. They're just going to do nothing, and wait for the government to foot the expense and come back and say, gee, you're putting harmful things into the environment. Then, those same companies will go through a lot of money, time, and effort, to try to avoid having to do anything to fix the problem.
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24. swlaaggie
9:41 AM CST on May 19, 2006
Don't really mean to be too extreme in the following comment but here goes.

I'm guessing the national budget for relatively useless congressional lunches and "dog and pony" shows are integer multipliers above what one state-of-the-art hurricane hunter aircraft would cost.

This seems to be an absolutely ridiculous choice to have to make or sacrifice to endure.
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23. rwdobson
3:45 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
There are deadlines (set by EPA) for states to come up with control plans to meet the new ozone standard. So if they wait 4 years to do the study, they won't be able to come up with an effective plan in time to meet these deadlines.
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22. louastu
3:45 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Hmm.... I wonder where I got 2 weeks from.

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21. louastu
3:39 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
What I don't understand, is why they can't wait about 4 years to do this study. They are getting a third plane specifically for other research.

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20. franck
3:37 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Considering the power of capital I doubt if Houston would restrict pollution even if the entire city's inhabitants had to start dressing in climatized suits.
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19. rwdobson
3:38 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
squeak, of course it is "industrial pollution". but we have to know specifically which chemicals, from which specific sources, are contributing to the ozone problem to be able to control it effectively.

and the decision is not up to Houston. Both the federal EPA and the state environmental agency regulate major sources of air pollution.
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18. squeak
10:38 AM CDT on May 19, 2006
3 days, Lou.
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17. louastu
3:34 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
If I remember correctly, Dr. Masters said in a previous blog that it would take around 2 weeks for them to remove the pollution measuring equipment (which would be damaged in a hurricane), and install the stuff needed to fly into a hurricane.
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16. squeak
10:34 AM CDT on May 19, 2006
jughead, that is an ULL.
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15. squeak
10:25 AM CDT on May 19, 2006
A couple of ideas. First, instead of having a study to get information about the pollution in the Houston area, let's skip the study, and go with the wild, crazy notion that it must be industrial pollution. That way, we won't have to wait for a study that will undoubtably decide that the problem is industrial pollution. Then, Houston can decide whether it wants to continue to accomodate the industries that are polluting the air, or not.

Second, let's hope NHC tasks that plane at least once every week during the hurricane season to go investigate a thunderstorm in the GOM.
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14. louastu
3:29 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Until I am told otherwise (by a person that I believe knows what they are talking about), the word "gihemous" is a combination of the words ginormous (Big), and hemionus (Ass).
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13. franck
3:29 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Doesn't that seem a little unprofessional? I mean, these guys are reporting the weather to the public in a professional, scientific setting.
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11. louastu
3:22 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
No problem.
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