Tag Archives: health

Smog Blog Outtakes

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On Earth Day, we published an interview about the “smog blog” created by Ray Hoff of the University of Maryland – Baltimore County. Today, we follow up by sharing this video, which has some striking shots of laser pulses from the instrument that Hoff’s atmospheric LIDAR group uses to take air quality measurements near Baltimore.


Plus, here are some outtakes from Hoff that did not fit into the original interview:

On the importance of satellites…
“We spend quite a bit of time trying to use satellite measurements as a surrogate for what we see on the ground because the Environmental Protection Agency can’t be everywhere. EPA has a thousand monitors in the United States, but those monitors are largely in urban areas, and they can be spaced quite far apart. There are, for example, no EPA samplers in Wyoming. NASA satellites can look everywhere.”

On why satellite measurements of aerosols are less accurate in the western U.S…
“In the West, the correlation between what happens on the ground is worse for two reasons. The land surface out in the western United States does not have as much vegetation, so it’s brighter and more difficult for NASA satellites to see the aerosols from space. The other thing is that there are a lot of fires in the West, which make it challenging to distinguish between aerosol types.”

On the challenges facing air quality researchers…
“One of the things they’d really like to have is better measurements of ozone at the ground level. Much of the ozone we have on the planet is in the stratosphere, about 20 kilometers or 15 miles up, and it’s hard to see through the ozone layer, since it’s so thick. We have to combine models with measurements from the ground and NASA airborne platforms, but the difficulty of seeing through this layer to surface ozone is kind of the holy grail of tropospheric air quality research right now.”

On geoengineering the climate with sulfate aerosols…
“A Nobel Prize winner has suggested putting more pollutants in the atmosphere in order to keep the planet cool. I actually think that’s a rather poor experiment for us to be trying with so little knowledge of how the atmosphere works. Humans have a pretty bad record of trying to “fix the planet.”

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

A Tale of Two Kenyas: Contradictions in Air Quality Stirred Researcher’s Pursuit of Atmospheric Science

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Charles Kironji Gatebe’s early years read like a cliché. He grew up barefoot and poor in the small Kenyan village of Kenda at the foot of Mount Kenya, the son of coffee sharecroppers who raised their family on pennies a day. He walked nearly 10 miles each way to school for nearly a decade. He lacked adequate texts and other school supplies.

What he didn’t lack on those long daily walks was clean air. It was the contrast between the clear skies of his boyhood home and the smog and fumes of the nation’s capital, Nairobi, that stirred within Gatebe a strong passion for science. In 1979, Gatebe (right) was selected to represent his elementary school at a national convention to celebrate the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) International Year of the Child. He later won a physics prize in high school in 1984 from the Kenya Secondary Schools Science Congress. He enjoyed independent research so much that his physics teacher would allow him to conduct his own experiments in the lab alone at night or on weekends.

Gatebe’s passion, matched with natural aptitude, eventually led Gatebe to degrees from Kenya’s University of Nairobi and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Now a climatologist with a joint appointment at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Gatebe has fashioned an award-winning career – including the rare honor of the World Meteorological Organization’s Young Scientist Award in 2000, and awards from the Kenyan government, German Academic Exchange Services, SysTem for Analysis, Research and Training (START), and the International Program in the Physical Sciences — for his innovative research on air pollution and its sources and effects on his country.

“Air quality in Kenya’s villages was and continues to be significantly different from the smog encountered in Nairobi. They vary so much that it seems you’re virtually in two distinct countries,” said Gatebe when asked to share what sparked his study of Kenya’s air pollution. During his graduate studies at the University of Nairobi, he devised a few climate projects that unexpectedly got the attention of the Kenyan government and United Nations Environment Program. One of those was a modeling experiment to measure vehicle pollution and predict pollution levels from the average speed and number of cars in use.

Gatebe also investigated the origins of the city’s air pollution; that is, how much Nairobi’s citizens and industry generated compared to what was transported in from other countries. “Charles’ Kenyan air quality research was quite breathtaking and significant,” said Michael King, a senior atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado and former senior project scientist at NASA Goddard who recruited Gatebe to NASA in 1999. “It involved him regularly hiking to the top of Mount Kenya – which sits roughly on the equator — and collecting air samples of atmospheric aerosol particles that he analyzed for their composition to distinguish dust and other particles from local sources from pollutants arriving from as far away as southern Africa, India and the Sahara.”

The acclaim from the study came as a surprise, Gatebe says, but motivated him to stay the course. He knew he’d found his niche.

As a former child scientist, Gatebe is eager to inspire more kids to get involved in science. He’s dedicated himself to NASA’s Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) education program, and blogs about the science of current events for GLOBE’s Web site.

Gatebe’s latest work is based on what he calls an accidental discovery, not uncommon in science. In summer of 2008, he was part of a NASA field mission called Arctic Research of the Composition of the Troposphere from Aircraft and Satellites (ARCTAS). Arctic wind currents can carry a haze that affects local climate. Gatebe and colleagues flew aboard planes through smoke blown over the Pacific Ocean from land-based fires to evaluate the composition of the pollution that eventually forms Arctic haze. 

A ship passed beneath Gatebe’s plane, through his measurement field, triggering a mass of sea foam in its wake. When he later evaluated visible and near-infrared data from NASA’s Cloud Absorption Radiometer instrument that took the measurements from aboard the plane, he noticed a spike in brightness in the vicinity of the ship’s path. The bubbles in the wake increased light reflectance off the ocean.

The irony of the discovery was quite amazing to Gatebe. Ships were long thought to pollute the air and contribute to warmer climate through exhaust emissions. But they also appear to have a counterbalancing effect of cooling local ocean surfaces by as much as four percent. What he doesn’t know yet is just how much the cooling effect offsets the warming effect on the nearby environment. He hopes that others will further the work so the question doesn’t go unanswered.  

–Gretchen Cook-Anderson, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

Charles K. Gatebe (top, courtesy of C. Gatebe);  Zebras with hazy Nairobi in the distance (bottom, courtesy of Michael King).  

Can Something Out in Space be Good for Your Health on Earth?

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An animation from Morain’s Center, viewable online by local residents, captured a storm crossing southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico on Jan. 6-8, 2008. This clip, part of a 48-hour dust forecast, centers on the hour of peak dust concentration in the towns of Wilcox and Silver City. Credit: Morain/Earth Data Analysis Center

Stanley Morain is not an asthmatic. But like a lot of other healthy people, his lungs are sensitive to dust in the air in his hometown of Albuquerque. Dust makes him cough. It makes his eyes tear. It makes him pretty miserable.

Morain believed that if he — a healthy individual — is affected by the dust storms common to the American southwest, then hundreds of thousands of asthmatics must be affected far more severely when millions of tiny particles nestle into their respiratory systems.

His career has led him to a spot as director of the Earth Data Analysis Center at the University of New Mexico, where he has encouraged his colleagues and students to follow their hearts in the projects they pursue. He’s set the example by spending 10 years using NASA satellite data to create daily dust forecasts to improve health alerts.

I caught up with Morain a few days before he left for the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting, where he gave a talk Tuesday about his work. He’s especially excited about decisions by the United Nations and the Joint Board of Geospatial Information Societies to publish his latest dust modeling work this spring.

WhatOnEarth: How did you decide to focus your career on using satellite sensors to improve public health?

Morain: The thought first struck me years ago, before I got my doctorate in biogeography and before I was awarded my first NASA research grant in 1964. I’ve always been fascinated by the geographic aspects of health even when I worked on NASA projects as dissimilar as lunar landers in the 1960s. I found we could combine information technology and modeling to learn more about health problems like heart attacks, Valley Fever, and hantavirus pulmonary syndrome that frequently strikes and kills young, otherwise healthy people within 24 hours.

WhatOnEarth: The Centers for Disease Control estimate 16.4 million adults and 7 million children in the U.S. suffer from asthma. How do your dust alerts help them?

Morain: Well, we’re not yet operational on a large-scale basis. That would take a commercial firm stepping in to make our alerts available nationwide. But, in my own backyard, the alerts are helping asthmatics plan for the worst days. Dust is a real problem here. When people know dust is headed their way, they can adapt their plans to minimize time outdoors or increase the dosage of some asthma medications. We’re making the alerts available, by way of summaries of dust and air quality conditions, to everyone from school nurses to TV news broadcasters to epidemiologists who are concerned about how long-term dust exposure affects the overall population.

WhatOnEarth: How do NASA satellites play into the development of the alerts?

Morain: There are environmental triggers for diseases like asthma. Very fine pollutant particles called aerosols are key examples of such triggers. NASA satellites like Terra and Aqua have instruments that can “see” the path dust takes. When you merge dust modeling information from the satellites with the National Weather Service weather forecasting model, you get a product that tells you when a weather event will bring dust along with it. The product becomes the basis for our daily dust alerts.

Three generations of model improvements for a dust storm across New Mexico and Texas on 15-16 December, 2003 illustrate (left) model performance before and (middle) after satellite data were included; and (right) the same storm modeled by the higher resolution, weather forecasting model Morain’s team uses. Credit: Morain/Earth Data Analysis Center

— Gretchen Cook-Anderson, NASA’s Earth Science News Team