Rice Weather Balloons Measure Dirty Air Above Houston

Pollution balloon
High-altitude pollution monitoring above Houston is painting an interesting picture of the city's ozone troubles, data that's collected using weather balloons and high-tech sensors launched from Rice University. Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports.

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The Tropospheric Ozone Pollution Project started three summers ago at Rice, with close to 130 balloon launches since then that have provided researchers with a detailed look at the ozone above the city and where it comes from. Dr. Gary Morris is an adjunct professor of physics and astronomy at Rice University.

"Even from that very first summer, we had an indication of transport of pollution from Alaska actually. Forest fires in Alaska were raging that summer, and some of that smoke made its way all the way to Houston and we saw an impact for two days on surface levels and levels above the surface due to that transported pollution."

Balloons go as high as 100,000 feet above the city, with instruments that take air samples and then transmit the results via a radio signal to a computer on the ground. Morris is then able to use the data to create a pollution profile.

"When we accumulate this record for a long enough period of time that we can start to understand what are the natural variabilities in the system and what are the ones that are caused by anthroprogenic activities and again interact with the modeling community such as the faculty members over at the University of Houston who do the regional air quality model and demonstrating whether or not we can improve the air quality forecast by using this data, I think that's going to be one of the legacies of our project."

Morris says it's clear through the data that although auto and industrial emissions are responsible for a good portion of the higher altitude pollution, naturally-produced ozone from the upper atmosphere and dirty air from places like Mexico also add to the city's problems.

"There are numerous sources that contribute to the pollution and when you're trying to devise state implemention plans to come into compliance with EPA air quality regulations, it's important to understand what fraction of your pollution can you do something about."

Scott Hersey is a researcher at Rice and says ground level pollution monitors are a critical part of measuring dirty air, but higher-altitude monitors add a new element to understanding where pollution comes from.

"We'll launch weather balloons at dawn from Houston and you can see a very defined pocket of high ozone sitting about the ground in the mornings and it's left over from the day before and that's added to our ozone pollution that gets formed everyday. Without these measurements above the ground, you have no idea that that's even up there. You have no idea the extent to which the ozone lasts from day to day."

The research is funded by NASA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. You can find a link to the project's home page on our website, KUHF.org.

Bio photo of Jack Williams

Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...