UAVs Search For Scientific Silver Lining in Beijing Pollution Clouds

While the air in Beijing, and efforts to improve it, have been a concern for the Olympic organizers and competitors, they could prove a boon for researchers.

Beginning tomorrow, a UC-San Diego professor will be sending unmanned aerial vehicles into the pollution clouds emanating from the city to measure the impacts of the government’s industrial shutdowns and traffic bans on the region surrounding Beijing.

“We have a huge and unprecedented opportunity to observe a large reduction in everyday emissions from a region that’s very industrially active,” said atmospheric scientist V. Ram Ramanathan, who also works with the Scripps Oceanographic Institution.

While it does not appear that Beijing’s plan has reduced particulate matter levels to World Health Organization recommended levels, the attempts still represent a large and unique science experiment. Chinese officials say they’ve reduced industrial activity by as much as 30 percent, although questions persist about the effectiveness of the shutdowns. Independent and government monitoring station data have been mixed since the program was instituted.

But for Ramanthan, the Olympic shutdowns still provide a “once-in-a-lifetime” look at how a large atmospheric region responds to a rapid drop in particulate matter emissions.

Ramanathan has been a leader in the use of UAVs and environmental sensors to measure black carbon, aka soot, levels.  His previous work, presented at this year’s AAAS conference, has attempted to provide evidence that black carbon is a major contributor to global warming.

“By determining the effects of soot reductions during the Olympics on atmospheric heating, we can gain much needed insights into the magnitude of future global warming,” Ramanathan said.

His project, termed CAPMEX, is being conducted in cojunction with Seoul National University and is backed by the National Science Foundation. The UAVs will fly out of the South Korean island of Cheju. Located about 725 miles southeast of Beijing, Cheju lies in the projected path of pollution plumes called atmospheric brown clouds.

The UAVs come loaded with a package of new micro- and nano-sensors that will gather important data about the interactions between various pollutants, the sun’s energy, and natural meteorological conditions, said Jay Fein, the NSF program director for climate dynamics.

“These technologies will provide new estimates of solar irradiance, aerosol-cloud interactions, climate forcing and important components of the biogeochemical cycles of the East Asian and western Pacific Ocean region,” Fein said.

Source: wired

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