NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio/T. Schindler
Data from NASA shows that nitrogen dioxide pollution, averaged yearly from 2005 to 2011, has decreased across the United States.
A new generation of satellites is sending back an unheralded amount of data, measuring air pollution, pollen, smoke and much more.
But is anyone paying attention? And is the data even available?
NASA recently tapped Tracey Holloway, a UW-Madison environmental studies professor, to make sense of the data.
With the help of her graduate and undergraduate students, Holloway will lead a multi-institutional effort to help make environmental satellite data more accessible and useful down here at street level.
“I think that a lot of people, when they think of NASA, they think of space,” she notes. “But NASA does a lot related to the Earth.”
Modern satellites can do things like measure industrial chemicals, smoke from forest fires and even pollen.
“The kind of data from those instruments is essential,” says Holloway. “Is the air getting cleaner or is it getting dirtier? Which pollutants are of concern? Are the levels that we’re breathing considered acceptable based on health impacts?”
Thanks to the Clean Air Act of 1970, “we have some of the cleanest air worldwide, despite the fact that we use a lot of energy,” especially fossil fuels, she says. “These policies are based on science. You have to know what’s happening in the air to be able to know how to clean it up.”
Over the past 40 years, ground-based measurements have been the gold standard of atmospheric measurements, Holloway notes. “Here in Madison, our main air-monitoring station is behind East High School, run by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”
Because the United States already has such a well-developed monitoring system, “it can sometimes be challenging to figure out how to insert new data sources into the existing program,” she says.
That will be the work of NASA’s newly formed Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team, led by Holloway. Her team members will include experts from Columbia University, Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Princeton University, University of Colorado, University of Washington, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center.
“The satellites can see chemicals in the air that are exactly the same chemicals that we’re regulating and that we’re concerned about for health reasons,” says Holloway.
In fact, the satellites see so much that the result can be data overload. In science, this difficulty is often termed a ‘signal-to-noise’ problem. “Just because there are lots of data out there doesn’t mean people are using it.”
All sorts of new kinds of information is beamed back to Earth, but how to make it helpful? Where to place it in the atmospheric puzzle? How to add orbital measurements to Earth data and make sense of the new, complete picture?
“We’ll be figuring out how to take that data from space and fit it into analysis, decision needs and communications activities,” explains Holloway. The information will serve organizations such as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the National Parks Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, American Lung Association and the Centers for Disease Control.
UW classrooms will benefit, too. “I work actively with both graduate students and undergraduates, and I’ll be pulling them in to be part of the problem solving and the research process and attending some of the meetings,” she says. “It’s a great way for them to get experience working on these cutting-edge problems while they’re at the university.”