Jim Szykman studies air quality using satellites

Jim Szykman: Air quality is both local, regional, and global. There’s different scales that people need to have in mind when they’re thinking about this. And while we continue to make great strides and improve the conditions on a local basis, there are a lot of other things that influence it. And it’s working with agencies like NASA and NOAA to bring new data into the process to inform us, to help understand how the conditions are changing, and that information will be used to help improve conditions locally as we move into the future.

Environmental engineer Jim Szykman works for the Environmental Protection Agency. Dr. Szykman uses data from NASA’s Terra satellite to not only monitor air quality, but to produce forecasts of air pollution. He spoke with EarthSky about tracking the sources, movement, and destination of polluted air. Dr. Szykman explained why scientists are concerned about tracking air pollution.

Jim Szykman: We’re concerned about pollution because we’re trying to characterize the atmosphere and provide that information, particularly within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to people that will use that in decision making.

EarthSky asked Dr. Szykman what kind of air pollution he and other scientists track.

Jim Szykman : As you might know, air pollution is a set of gases or particles in the atmosphere where the concentrations are high enough and that concentration can cause concern with regards to human health or the environment. And when we talk about air pollution, some people talk about it in the terms of the stratospheric ozone and depletion of that form ozone-depleting substances. When I’m talking about air pollution, I’m talking about it in regards to air quality and what the local air quality is.

Within the U.S., the most pervasive problems with regards to air quality are in the area of ozone and particle pollution, says Szykman.

Jim Szykman : With regards to particle pollution, we’ve been working with NASA over a period of time to try to look at how information from our networks at EPA could be combined with information from satellites that they’ve put up that can take a look at the distribution of aerosols in the atmosphere and provide us some information on what’s going on from a larger viewpoint on the issue of particle pollution.

Scientists track particles of pollution in our air, said Szykman, through a combination of computer models, measurements on the ground, and satellite data.

Jim Szykman: At EPA, we’re interested in taking a look at what we call particle pollution, or particulate matter. And particle pollution is typically a mixture of solid particles and liquids that are found in the air. And these are emitted from a variety of sources. Some of them are emitted directly into the air, others are emitted as gases into the air. And through different chemical mechanisms and other physical processes they turn into particles in the atmosphere.

Szykman added that, when these particles become inhaled, there’s certain health effects that scientists are concerned about.

Jim Szykman: And so we’re interested in trying to track the sources of these particles, where they go in the atmosphere, and ultimately what their fate is as they deposit back to the ground. Within EPA, we typically do that by using a set of chemical transport models, and also monitors that we have on the ground to actually monitor what the air quality is on the ground and how that’s changing over time. Working with scientists at NASA, we’ve been using data from the MODIS instrument on the Terra satellite to look at aerosol distributions in the atmosphere.

Our thanks today to NASA’s Earth Observatory and TERRA mission, helping us better understand and protect our home planet.

To read more about Dr. Szykman, see A new idea in air quality monitoring on the Earth Observatory.

October 19, 2009

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