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Blowing in the wind: transatlantic pollution

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 5, 2004


Jochen Stutz welcomes a visitor to his enclosed concrete perch five stories above Appledore Island - a speck of rock and scrub that is one of several tightly packed islands making up the Isles of Shoals, six miles east of Kittery, Maine.

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Most folks come to these islands for the sun, sea, and solitude. Dr. Stutz comes for the air pollution.

"Here, you get what comes from Boston and New York," the atmospheric chemist from the University of California at Los Angeles explains as he tends an instrument that measures airborne pollutants. "The Isles of Shoals are right in the path."

Dr. Stutz and a handful of colleagues at this outpost represent one element in an unprecedented international effort this summer to study regional and transatlantic air pollution and its potential effect on climate. The immediate goal is to provide information that will improve daily air-pollution forecasts from Boston to Brussels and give climate scientists a better idea of how pollution from North America directly and indirectly alters the amount of heat the atmosphere retains from the sun.

Inadvertently, however, the research also may build a case for international cooperation in combating air pollution.

The work is critical to setting emissions standards, says Daniel Jacob, an atmospheric chemist at Harvard University. Otherwise, "you could find that your efforts are being defeated by ozone pollution" from somewhere else.

Within the past five years, scientists have grown to appreciate the globe- trotting nature of ozone in the lower atmosphere and of tiny particles called aerosols, says Dr. Jacob, a member of the international research effort known as the International Consortium for Atmospheric Research on Transport and Transformation (ICARTT).

Researchers have found, for example, that air pollution from Asia can further undermine air quality in spots such as Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks in California - "pristine" spots already affected by the Golden State's own air-quality problems. European air pollution has been tracked to Asia and the Arctic. Now, scientists are trying to close a knowledge gap on both sides of the Atlantic.

This summer's project began as a more modest effort to study air pollution in the northeast United States, notes Fred Fehsenfeld, an atmospheric chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aeronomy Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

In the summer of 2002, researchers from NOAA, the University of New Hampshire, and several other universities conducted a month-long air-pollution study using data from ground-based measuring sites, aircraft, and NOAA's research vessel, the Ronald H. Brown. This effort uncovered new and critical elements to the region's air-pollution problems.

Even as the 2002 campaign was being planned, researchers were looking ahead to a similar effort this year to follow up on 2002's expected discoveries. NOAA's 2004 project became the nucleus around which a broader research agenda condensed. While NOAA is still pursuing the US regional problem, scientists outside NOAA couldn't pass up a chance to make complementary, simultaneous measurements that would allow them to ask deeper questions about the atmosphere, its climate, and its chemistry. A regional US research project mushroomed as atmospheric scientists filed in from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the US Department of Energy, the US Navy, and a broad range of universities in the US, Canada, Germany, France, and Britain. "If you build it, they will come," Dr. Fehsenfeld says with a grin.