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NSF NCAR scientists participate in mission to measure air quality over Asia

NSF NCAR scientists participate in mission to measure air quality over Asia


NASA-led ASIA-AQ campaign will help verify and interpret new satellite observations

February 12, 2024 – by Laura Snider

Scientists from the US National Science Foundation's National Center for Atmospheric Research (NSF NCAR) have begun a four-country deployment focused on taking aerial observations of air quality over some of Asia's largest cities.

The observations, part of NASA's Airborne and Satellite Investigation of Asian Air Quality (ASIA-AQ) mission, will be used to help verify and interpret the new satellite observations. Ultimately, the data collected will lead to a better understanding of the factors that affect air quality in some of the world's largest megacities and help improve complex air quality models.

The international team of researchers that includes more than two dozen NSF NCAR staff, primarily from NSF NCAR's Laboratory of Atmospheric Chemistry Observations and Modeling (ACOM) launched the ASIA-AQ campaign in the Philippines this week. Over the next two months the researchers will also go to Malaysia, South Korea and Thailand.

ACOM has three instruments aboard NASA's DC-8 research aircraft and is also providing air quality modeling for the campaign.

ACOM is able to contribute valuable expertise and capabilities to these types of air quality missions, said NSF NCAR scientist Louisa Emmons, who serves on the US Steering Group missions. The measurements obtained from our instruments and the predictions provided by our models will be critical components of the campaign. We are delighted to collaborate with our colleagues, both nationally and internationally, to improve our understanding of local air quality, which has such huge impacts on people's daily lives and long-term health.

The connection of heaven and earth

A major goal of the ASIA-AQ mission is to link satellite measurements of air quality with ground-based observations. In particular, South Korea launched a new satellite instrument, the Geostationary Environmental Monitoring Spectrometer (GEMS), in 2020. The instrument measures both trace gases and aerosols and, for the first time, provides those measurements every hour for more than 20 countries in Asia.

“Before the geostationary satellite, we only had a picture once a day for many of these places,” said NSF NCAR scientist Rebecca Hornbrook, who is participating in the campaign. We now have a full days worth of information that can help us understand what affects air quality at different times of the day and how emissions and chemistry change during the day.

To ensure that satellite data is being interpreted correctly, scientists must validate it with observations closer to the ground. This is because satellites do not directly measure trace gases in the atmosphere. Instead they rely on measuring the wavelengths of light that are absorbed or emitted by different chemical species. The spectrum of light reaching the satellite can give scientists a picture of the composition of the atmosphere. However, because light waves can also be affected by other factors, including humidity and scattering by aerosols, the observations must be interpreted with caution.

While a network of ground-based instruments also provides point-in-time observations of air quality, airborne observations can link lower-resolution remote sensing data from above with high-quality but extremely localized observations from down. The planes can also change their altitude, gathering information about how chemicals in the atmosphere are distributed vertically. In contrast, satellites generally cannot distinguish where many pollutants are measured near the ground or higher in the atmosphere.

“Having an airplane fly through air pollution plumes with a full chemistry lab on board allows us to bridge the gap between satellite and surface measurements and enable better interpretation of long-term measurements,” said NSF NCAR scientist Samuel Hall, of who is the principal investigator (PI). in one of the three ACOM instruments used for ASIA-AQ.

ASIA-AQ includes two NASA aircraft: a Gulfstream III and a DC-8. ACOM instruments will be on board the DC-8 and include:

  • No.x and O3 Chemiluminescence: provides high time resolution measurements of NO, NO2, and high precision ozone. (PI: Alessandro Franchin)
  • Trace Organic Gas Analyzer with a Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometer (TOGA-TOF): measures a wide list of volatile organic compounds. (PI: Eric Apel)
  • Charge-coupled device actinic flux spectroradiometer (CAFS): measures the change in the amount of light available to drive chemical reactions in the atmosphere. (PI: Samuel Hall)

ASIA-AQ is also building on daily air quality forecasts using ACOM's Multiscale Infrastructure for Chemistry Modeling (MUSICA) and the NSF NCAR-based Weather Research and Forecasting Model (WRF) with pollutant source tracers. The ACOM chemical forecast team, led by Emmons along with other forecast teams from the Naval Research Laboratory, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Iowa, NASA and local institutions in each study region will provide scientists an idea of ​​what they can expect to find during the days flights. The measurements will be used to evaluate and improve the models, and, in turn, the models will provide context for interpreting the observations.

The collected data will be made freely available to local partners, who will also be full participants in the campaign. Having strong local partnerships ensures that data is most useful to agencies in host countries.

The mission ends at the end of March. For more information or to track NASA's spacecraft en route, visit NASA ASIA-AQ website.

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