Ozone Pollution From Asia Blown to North America

Ever wonder how the western US has high ozone levels when the winds usually blow in off the Pacific Ocean? Did you think it was all from the cars clogging the freeways? Turns out, it is caused in part from emissions of ozone generating air pollutants from Asia.

A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that Springtime ozone levels above western North America are rising, primarily due to air flowing eastward from the Pacific Ocean, a trend that is most significant when the air originates in Asia. These increases in ozone could make it more difficult for the United States to meet Clean Air Act standards for ozone pollution at ground level, according to a new international study published online Jan. 20 in the journal Nature.

The study led by NOAA analyzed large quantities of ozone data captured since 1984. Among the data sources for the study were profiles of ozone in Earth’s troposphere (lowermost atmosphere) measured since 1999 by the differential absorption lidar (laser detection and ranging) system located at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Table Mountain Facility near Wrightwood, Calif. That remote, high-altitude facility enables research in atmospheric science, optical communication and astronomy. Measurements from atmospheric balloons launched from Table Mountain also contributed to the findings.

“In springtime, pollution from across the hemisphere, not nearby sources, contributes to the ozone increases above western North America,” said lead author Owen R. Cooper of the NOAA-funded Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “When air is transported from a broad region of south and east Asia, the trend is largest.”

The study focused on springtime ozone in a slice of the atmosphere from 3 to 8 kilometers (2 to 5 miles) above the surface of western North America, far below the protective ozone layer but above ozone-related, ground-level smog that is harmful to human health and crops. Ozone in this intermediate region constitutes the northern hemisphere background, or baseline level, of ozone in the lower atmosphere. The study was the first to pull together and then analyze the nearly 100,000 ozone observations gathered in separate studies by instruments on aircraft, balloons and other platforms.

Combustion of fossil fuels releases pollutants like nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which react in the presence of sunlight to form ozone. North American emissions contribute to global ozone levels, but the researchers did not find any evidence that these local emissions are driving the increasing trend in ozone above western North America.

Cooper and colleagues from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., and eight other research institutes, including JPL, used historical data of global atmospheric wind records and sophisticated computer modeling to match each ozone measurement with air-flow patterns for several days before it was recorded. This approach essentially let the scientists track ozone-producing emissions back to a broad region of origin.

Image shows Lidar (light detection and ranging) beams from the tropospheric ozone lidar laboratory at JPL’s Table Mountain Facility near Wrightwood, Calif., provided tropospheric ozone data used in the NOAA study. The actual beams used in the study were in the ultraviolet (invisible) wavelength. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

Article by Roger Greenway, appearing courtesy of ENN

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