WunderBlog Archive » Category 6™

Category 6 has moved! See the latest from Dr. Jeff Masters and Bob Henson here.

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

Air and Water Pollution

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

Reader Comments

501. Alec
Another thing to note, last yr's SS temps at this time were BELOW average in the Gulf(now they are above average in most of the Gulf in general) and Dennis came through with Cat4 winds!(big upwelling in July) That in itself wasn't enough to stop Katrina, Rita, and Wilma from causing major devastation....
Ya'll check out my blog for some nice sst comparisons. Give me 5 minutes as I am getting ready to update the current sst map.

SJ Blog with SST maps

"And again, you dedicate yourself to proving that oil companies are evil. It. Does. Not. Matter. This is America, and we have a free market economy whether you like it or not. Have you driven today?"

This is a foolish argument. Because we need something, the people that make money from it are above ethics, morality and accountability? Or is it simply that anything that makes money is inherently amoral?

It is precisely because things like energy are so critical to human society that they need to be held to a higher standard, not left to wallow in this unfettered corruption that prevents progress towards new energy sources.

Not buying energy is not an option. Regulating and controlling the industry so it behaves like a good citizen of the country and planet is the only option, and that is of course what people advocate.

"I agree with this to an extent. Just a pain in the tail to read when someone says in 30 sentences what can be said in 5."

He was challenged to prove something. He could not have proven this point in 5 sentences. All he could have done is repeated the assertions, which is what passes as informed discussion far too often these days. There's not a single throwaway sentence in those posts, they all advance and clarify the point.

And global warming and the human role in it seem perfectly in sync with a weather blog, especially one focusing on severe weather.
504. Alec
Compare Gulf SST May 21 with Gulf SST May 22 you will see the loop current has shoved a bunch of warmer water just S/SE of the NO coast...
I also noticed that other parts of the Gulf have warmed up noticably; also, the warming of Lake Pontchartrain is very noticable (from the recent hot weather).

Perhaps, but a little less politics and a little more science would be appreciated.

i hav updated my blog
Uhhhh... New Blog Up...
ScienceCop's Answer Permalink:

Posted By: MichaelSTL at 8:19 AM CDT on May 22, 2006.
ScienceCop - please stop making your gigantic posts or I will mark them. You only need one sentence to get your point across, not an essay.

Any graphic picture takes 10 to 20 times the bytes to transmit as my text messages. If the truth hurts your eyes, that's your problem, not mine. MARK AWAY.

A false statement, or indeed a fraudulent graphic of phoney CO2 history, take as much time and space to correct as required by the falseness and by the volume of evidence required to illustrate it's essential untruth.

Science has retrieved air bubbles stored in ice cores going back 600,000 years. Beyond this point there are no bottles of air showing what the Earth's atmosphere was like at any earlier dates. People making claims of higher CO2 levels have to produce their bottles of air and tell in great detail where they obtained these samples of Earth's atmosphere from long ago. There is CRIME of FRAUD occurring and it is every single citizen's duty to suppress crime, not just the cops. There are life and death consequences which result from false and fraudulent information passed around from shady sources. You need to go on record that you believe fraud laws should be enforced and violations punished with stiff prison sentences. There are no exemptions for "left" or "right", no exemptions for "conservative" or "liberal", for "Capitalist" or "Socialist". THERE ARE NO EXEMPTIONS -- the laws must be enforced with as much harshness as required to suppress any temptations to violate the laws, no matter who the criminals are.

Entire cities are being destroyed because fraud is succeeding: Cancun, Cozumel, New Orleans, Port Arthur, parts of Miami. People need to understand the real danger and understand the imperative to take appropriate actions. This is not a drill, this is not a test, this is the real thing.
I think that I am going to destroy your blog by putting a post with the word "Obscene" in at 1 million times (or whatever I can send at once). Your entry is likely to be removed.... others with me are offended (I got emails from them saying that they have marked it as spam or obscene).
Living just outside of Houston I can say that while the air quality is poor, you can't beat the unique colors from the sun setting on a layer of molten pollution wavy gently in the stagnate horizon. As healthy mosquitoes play about in a symphony of buzzing. One has only to lay one's head on the over-heated concrete to imagine what trees might once have blocked this man-made view and ponder the glory that is industrialization at its zenith.