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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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111. ProgressivePulse
3:43 AM GMT on May 20, 2006
I have seen my share of Hurricane's. Monica at peak intensity was a monster, her appearance reminds me of Wilma as she was approacing Cozumel.
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108. Alec
11:41 PM EDT on May 19, 2006
Austrialia really has no concept for typhoons...their "sustained winds" scale measures wind gusts, which is in fact NOT sustained winds......
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106. WSI
3:38 AM GMT on May 20, 2006
f rather I am talking about the number.

Yeah, but that is along the same lines. How can we know what they were like before records were kept? I see what you are saying though. Just saying that its quite possible this activity has been seen before.
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105. ProgressivePulse
3:35 AM GMT on May 20, 2006
Ha Ha Threat that is
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104. ProgressivePulse
3:33 AM GMT on May 20, 2006
I am 5 miles from the coast Colby, tis a treat to me.
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102. WSI
3:26 AM GMT on May 20, 2006
Keep in mind everyone, that our reliable records only go back so far. It is quite feasible that stronger storms occured before the reliable records were kept.

Also, wanted to mention that I have a new weather website in the works.


It is a link directory that will house all the weather links I can cram into it. Your suggestions and links are also welcome. More information in my blog..

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101. ForecasterColby
3:26 AM GMT on May 20, 2006
Monica, officially, didn't even come close to Zoe. The australians never had her below 910mb, as I recall.

Even if hurricanes like Katrina/Rita/Wilma become commonplace, that's still only a coastal threat.
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99. ProgressivePulse
3:14 AM GMT on May 20, 2006
If you think before 2004, a cat 5 was a rare occasion, it is common place now. My grandmother live in SEFLA for 15 years and left before Andrew thank god. She never went through a Hurricane, in 15 years. I have lived here for 4 years and been through 3 Hurricanes.
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98. Alec
11:14 PM EDT on May 19, 2006
the depth of warm water in the loop current:link
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97. ProgressivePulse
3:12 AM GMT on May 20, 2006
Look at the other Basins, look at the extreme weather across the globe! What about the atlantic will be different?
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96. ProgressivePulse
3:08 AM GMT on May 20, 2006
Personally Micheal I think that Cat 5's that you talk about are already a regular occurance and will be for years to come.
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92. ForecasterColby
2:13 AM GMT on May 20, 2006
*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.

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. 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. 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.
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91. ruscarl
1:54 AM GMT on May 20, 2006
Global warming revisited....

Depends on what you mean by reality... :-)
Most people don't care about history, don't care to guess about the future and don't believe most of what they hear. As for the present...
Open water in the Canadian Arctic
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90. rwwhot
7:30 PM CDT on May 19, 2006
Global warming still....

Some things always bug me about the debate, its like people have reality blinders on....

China, India, and Indonesia are *each* going to leave the US in the dust when it comes to production of CO2 in the near future. Not through cars of course, but through coal fired electrical generation. They've been dissemilating for a while now, but as time goes on, they're going to be more open about the fact that they believe providing more megawatts per person to their citizens is more important than reducing CO2.

Since no one has ever suggested a good reason why this won't happen, I have to assume those on the left have got some massive rose colored glasses on and are just going to ignore the result in whatever way they can.

Does that mean we shouldn't reduce our emissions, nah, its a fine goal in and of itself. But to pretend that its somehow going to have a meaningful impact on global warming isn't realistic. So lets be realistic, we're long past this point of no return if not from a raw climate perspective, certainly from the perspective of political reality. Every resident of India, Indonesia, and China are going to want, and they are going to get at least 500 kwh / month. Do the math, and that amount of power can come from only one place.. Acknowledge it, accept it; and lets move on to what realistically CAN be done.

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88. RL3AO
7:31 PM CDT on May 19, 2006
shear in the carribean
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87. Weather456
8:29 PM AST on May 19, 2006
What is the diagram above showing?
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86. RL3AO
6:26 PM CDT on May 19, 2006
Shear maps for:

West Carribean

East Carribean
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85. RL3AO
6:11 PM CDT on May 19, 2006
You could also look at that from the other direction. Humans weren't around when CO2 levels were at record highs either. Who knows how well we could adapt to those levels.
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84. snowboy
10:24 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
C'mon Colby, you're not serious are you? "Life will adapt" is certainly true and sounds comforting, but from my human-centered perspective I want to ensure that this planet remains comfortably habitable for my children and their children.

Global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions is going to stress our civilization like nothing we have ever experienced in modern times. There will be a great deal of hardship and suffering, and it is going to be borne first by the weakest and the poorest but ultimately by us all.

Your comment that CO2 levels have been higher in the past does not ackowledge that in the past the sun was much cooler than it is today. Our planet has been kept in a state of dynamic equilibrium with conditions suitable for life for millenia by the interrelated actions of the planet's biota.

We are now pushing hard on that equilibrium with our greenhouse gas emissions, and are at the same time savagely reducing the ability of the planet's biota to try to deal with those emissions (through clear-cutting and burning our forests, draining and filling our wetlands, rapidly expanding our urban areas and wontonly polluting the whole system).

It would be GREAT if we started restricting the human activities that are imperilling our planet. In that context, your facile comments represent a mind-set and a perspective that I do not share.
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83. jeffB
10:29 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
ForecasterColby wrote:


CO2 has been many times higher at previous points in earth's history. Guess what? The planet is still here.

I don't think anyone is seriously claiming that the planet is going to disappear in a puff of vapor.

Life adapted. And it will again.

Indeed. But in the past, life has "adapted" through mass extinctions and re-speciation. Many of us would prefer not to lose a majority, or even a very large minority of today's major species, nor would we like to wait millions of years for the resulting ecological voids to be filled.

If you want to talk climate change, we're actually in almost the COOLEST time in Earth's history.

Yes, and most of us are quite attached to this climate, what with the global economy being dependent on it and whatnot.

"CO2 is an essential gas for life. Now some people who can't look at the data say it's going to kill us all. Imagine if people believe them - how many things would be needlessly retricted then?"

If 380ppm is good for life, 720ppm should be [i]twice[/i] as good! Heck, let's shoot for 3.8%! Imagine how great our lawns would look [i]then[/i]!

ForecasterColby, it's not a matter of who's looking at the data, it's the color of the glasses and/or the angle of the blinders they're wearing. I should think we could agree on that.
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82. K8eCane
10:27 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
also remember a depression exiting around the NC/Va border once turned back into a tropical storm briefly over land. they said it's because the ground that it went over was already so saturated...i dont remember the particular storm that was
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81. K8eCane
10:22 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
The only thing i have to go on is 48 years of living in Wilmington NC and Watching the tropics seriously for the past 15 years but....with past storms i have heard forecasters say " the hurricane managed to slip under the high" sometimes....it's usually with powerful storms....any comment?
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80. K8eCane
10:19 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
i say we may get areas of interest starting soon...but no storm until 2nd week of June
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79. ForecasterColby
10:16 PM GMT on May 19, 2006

CO2 has been many times higher at previous points in earth's history. Guess what? The planet is still here. Life adapted. And it will again. If you want to talk climate change, we're actually in almost the COOLEST time in Earth's history.

"CO2 is an essential gas for life. Now some people who can't look at the data say it's going to kill us all. Imagine if people believe them - how many things would be needlessly retricted then?"
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78. jeffB
9:52 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
"The fuels that produce CO2 (carbon dioxide) have freed us from a world of back-breaking labor, lighting up our lives, allowing us to create and move the things we need, the people we love," the ad runs. "Now some politicians want to label carbon dioxide a pollutant. Imagine if they succeed -- what would our lives be like then?"

"Fillings that contain mercury have freed us from a world of pain, ugliness, and toothlessness. Now some politicians want to label mercury a hazard. Imagine if they succeed -- what would our lives be like then?"

"Medical machines use X-rays to free us from a world of agony, unchecked disease, sorrow and death. Now some politicians want to label X-rays a hazard. Imagine if they succeed -- what would our lives be like then?"

"Marketing messages have freed us from a world of darkness and ignorance, allowing us to learn about the products we need and desire. Now some people want to pass regulations requiring them to adhere to some faceless government bureaucrat's opinion of 'truth'. Imagine if they succeed -- what would our lives be like then?"
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77. snowboy
9:37 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Given that SSTs are high for this time of year, once the shear drops off things will start happening. No need for a great debate about the actual dates. The pot is starting to boil..

And if you've been procrastinating about getting prepared for The Season in terms of laying in supplies, amiong repairs etc. now is the time to get off your duff.
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76. StormJunkie
9:33 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Alright ST catch you later.

Thanks for dropping the knowledge all up in here.

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75. atmosweather
5:31 PM EDT on May 19, 2006
I picked May 24th and its still possible, so I'll stick with that.
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74. StormJunkie
9:22 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
lmao. Your wrong, stop talking pollution, don't talk tropics now.

Your first post said nothing about the 23-28.

Anyhow I say the 29-3.

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9:19 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
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72. atmosweather
5:19 PM EDT on May 19, 2006
I'll be watching.
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71. StormJunkie
9:16 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
lol ST. You crack me up.

So you are saying that on the 23 we will have our first depression or higher correct?

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9:16 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
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69. sayhuh
3:08 PM CST on May 19, 2006
I think the more interesting part of this is that the views of pollution or now anti-polution are strong enough in the mainstream that you could even attempt to have political commentary in ads advocating polution.

Just proves a little data is bad, more widespread data can be really bad. Sad that rule rings true in the mainstream, where I would think the converse should apply in the scientific community.

Further evidence that perception is reality.

Ok..I will kick my soapbox back in the corner. Carry on.
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68. atmosweather
5:13 PM EDT on May 19, 2006
Some models are hinting at a complete disintegration of the subtropical/tropical jet in 48-60 hours. With that strong wave moving towards low shear, it may become our first area of interest if it can nudge north a little (and, a strong upper level anticyclone is forecast to fill out the Caribbean after the passage of the cold front, adding to convection and increasing the chances of tropical genesis).
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9:02 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
just a friendly reminder watch the tropics very closely starting may 23 the shear that is done there now will slack up a good bit and the temps are already sizzling in the sw gulf and nw caribbean..so keep alert a storm will be born only the beginning of this monsterous hurricane season 2006...STORMTOP WILL BREAK IN AT ANYTIME IF CONDITIONS BECOME DANGEROUS...WE DONT WANT ANOTHER SITUATION LIKE KATRINA TO TAKE PLACE ALL OVER AGAIN...STORMTOP IS WATCHING THE TROPICS AND RIGHT NOW THANK GOD THEY ARE QUIET BUT NEXT WEEK MAY BE A NIGHTMARE ALL OVER AGAIN....I WILL BE GOING BY MY STORMTOP INTRODUCES CATEGORY 6 SCALE FOR 2006...SOUNDS KIND OF CREEPY BUT IT WILL HAPPEN THIS YEAR......001612 FRIDAY
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66. atmosweather
5:08 PM EDT on May 19, 2006
Sorry, that should be 15 W
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65. atmosweather
5:04 PM EDT on May 19, 2006
There is an extremely large wave near 4N 13W, which is producing some impressive deep convection and signature. The shear is far too high to allow development right now and it is too far south, however, models are projecting the shear to lighten in its path, and if it can stay away from South America it will be something to keep an eye on.
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64. StormJunkie
8:56 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
Thanks atmos.

Interesting take on co2.

I still say the why is not nearly improtant as how we will deal with it. If it is co2 then I don't think we can completely stop it now even with the most valiant effort.

I have a nice set of Gulf Stream SST maps from the previous three years in my blog. It looks to me as if overall things are warmer each year.


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63. snowboy
8:47 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
sayhuh, that is interesting - I never thought I'd see that day where there would be ads extolling the virtues of CO2 emissions..
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62. snowboy
8:41 PM GMT on May 19, 2006
thanks weather 456 - the pot is starting to boil..
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61. sayhuh
2:47 PM CST on May 19, 2006

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