How NASA is Helping the World Breathe More Easily

From NASA

April 14, 2020

How NASA is Helping the World Breathe More Easily

Look around. Can you see the air? No?

Luckily, many of NASA’s Earth-observing satellites can see what the human eye can’t — including potentially harmful pollutants lingering in the air we breathe. From the vantage point of space, these satellites help us measure and track air pollution as it moves around the globe and have contributed significantly to our decades-long quest for cleaner air.

When we talk about “air pollution,” we’re referring to chemicals or particles in the atmosphere that are known to have negative health effects on humans. The Clean Air Act of 1970 established legislation that requires the tracking of six of those pollutants — nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, particulate matter (microscopic specks of solid or liquid material in the air), sulfur dioxide, and lead. Satellite instruments are measuring all of these except lead.

NASA has been involved in the study of air quality for decades from space and with ground sensors, creating a time series of global data records critical to understanding the impacts and causes of air pollution and to helping design solutions. This article highlights a few of the many projects under way now and planned for the years to come.

Air pollution can appear as a gray or orange haze enveloping a city. What the naked eye can’t see are the hundreds of chemical reactions taking place to produce that pollution. NASA science can reveal a more complete picture of atmospheric chemistry. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scientific Visualization Studio Download This Video in HD from NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Measured in Space, Used on Earth

In analyzing spaceborne data, one thing is abundantly clear — reducing emissions from human activities can have a profound effect on air quality.

China’s recent large-scale response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included quarantines and limitations on industrial activities and travel, is a particularly vivid example of this. Data from instruments on NASA’s Aura and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5 satellites showed a significant decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — a noxious gas emitted by power plants, industrial facilities and motor vehicles — over much of the country during that time.

The pandemic presents a unique use-case for spaceborne Earth observations; however, satellite-derived air quality data have applications across a wide array of disciplines. That’s where NASA’s Health and Air Quality applications program demonstrates its value. The program builds invaluable partnerships with other agencies, industry and nonprofits to facilitate the use of this data in solving real world problems.

 “We funded a project led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assimilate NASA Earth observations into their “AirNow” system,” said program manager John Haynes.

The AirNow system is the EPA’s platform for distributing national, real-time air quality reports and forecasts. The measurements primarily come from thousands of monitoring stations on the ground across the United States, Mexico, and Canada; however, those ground monitoring stations are not all-encompassing.

“The ground monitors cover a good part of the U.S., especially around metropolitan areas. But there are large sections of the country that don’t have monitoring stations,” said Haynes. “By introducing satellite aerosol optical depth observations from the MODIS instrument, we can measure those areas too, which allows us to form a more accurate image of how air pollution — and specifically fine particulate matter — is distributed across the country and how it changes over time.”

By incorporating data from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI), a Dutch-Finnish contribution to NASA’s Aura satellite mission, the EPA and NASA were also able to identify a significant drop in NO2 over the last 15 years in the United States — evidence that regulations put into place by the Clean Air Act 50 years ago — vehicle gas mileage regulations, a shift to cleaner fuels, and so on — are, indeed, working.

“We’ve been able to show that since 2004, NO2 levels have dropped as much as 50% depending on what metropolitan area we’re talking about. In fact, the air in the United States is now the cleanest it has been in the modern industrial era,” Haynes said.

World map showing tropospheric ozone data, with high values over land sources.
While ozone in the stratosphere is critical to maintaining life on Earth, surface ozone, shown here, is a toxic gas to most plant and animal species. NASA merges satellite data with models to provide a snapshot of chemistry throughout the atmosphere at any given time and help predict air quality worldwide. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scientific Visualization Studio

Connecting the (data) dots

With the abundance of data coming in — there are dozens of Earth-observing satellites currently on orbit — one of the biggest challenges is connecting stakeholders with the right “tools” or datasets for what they’re trying to accomplish, and in some cases, teaching them how incorporate this type of data into their planning.

“To address this issue, our team has developed a website where we help users navigate all of these resources, from someone who has never really used satellite data before to more advanced stakeholders looking to make better decisions and inform the public on issues of air quality,” says Tracey Holloway, leader of the NASA-funded Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST), a group of air quality and public health scientists from government offices and universities across the country.

Wildfires in California, for example, have caused air quality concerns in recent years. A HAQAST tiger team was able to look at emissions and develop new methods for using existing data from the VIIRS and MODIS instruments to support the state of California in its understanding and quantification of emissions. HAQAST also helped to get data from newer satellites like GOES-16 into the state’s hands.

According to the Global Burden of Disease report, air pollution is the leading environmental cause of mortality — a statistic of which many in the public health sector are well aware. And the availability of satellite observations is changing the dialogue around it.

“Just within the health community, we have observed the growing trend of research collaborations that bridge expertise across environmental health disciplines. As we continue to train the global health workforce, we must identify the skillsets that can prepare the workforce to manage the emerging risks of the future. For example, one skillset is the knowledge and use of innovative data sources – including satellite data – whether they apply data for research purposes or interpret findings for educational outreach activities,” said Helena Chapman, associate program manager of NASA Health and Air Quality applications.

Holloway adds, “The abundance of satellite data right now is amazing. Just in the past 10 years, it’s been remarkable how many agencies, nonprofits, cities and states have gone from not even knowing satellites could detect air pollution to actively using the data in their day-to-day operations.”

Looking Ahead

Right now, our satellites can measure a number of chemicals in the air over the United States and globally on a daily basis. But several missions scheduled to launch in the next few years will be able to do even better.

For example, the Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring Pollution (TEMPO) mission is designed to measure several different pollutants — including NO2 and ozone — over the United States during every daylight hour. TEMPO will give scientists the ability to see how pollution sources and concentrations change throughout the course of a day. Part of an international constellation of like satellites that includes South Korea’s Geostationary Environment Monitoring Spectrometer (GEMS), and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-4, TEMPO is scheduled to launch in 2022.

The Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA) mission, also scheduled to launch in the early 2020s, will improve our understanding of particulate matter — those tiny, microscopic particles lingering in the air — with particular focus on large metropolitan areas. Data like this will help the health community better understand the connection between aerosol pollutants and health problems including adverse birth outcomes and cardiovascular diseases.

“MAIA will allow us to study these aerosols in detail, tell us how big they are and how many of them are in that very small category that is most harmful to human health,” said Barry Lefer, program scientist of NASA’s Tropospheric Composition program. “We’ll also be able to better understand what the particles are made of which will lead us to where they came from (like auto exhaust for example).”

Even further in the future, the possibilities are many.

“I’d love to see a future where real-time Earth observation data is seamlessly and continuously available to everyone — from orbit to the palm of your hand,” said Haynes. “It would allow anyone to make fast decisions regarding air quality and their health.”

By Esprit Smith

NASA’s Earth Science News Team Last Updated: April 14, 2020 Editor: Ellen Gray

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30 thoughts on “How NASA is Helping the World Breathe More Easily

  1. “It would allow anyone to make fast decisions regarding air quality and their health.”

    Shame that we don’t have data on what pollution levels there were before humans came on the scene. Activists are quite capable of trying to stop natural ‘pollution’ levels by banning human activities…

    • The Clean Air Act of 1970 established legislation that requires the tracking of six of those pollutants — nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, particulate matter (microscopic specks of solid or liquid material in the air), sulfur dioxide, and lead.

      Oh wait , not CO2 ?

      Maybe someone at NASA just re-read the Clear Air Act and realised the difference between pollution and “toxic CO2”. About time.

      • That confusion was the gift of senile fools and political tools on the US Supreme Court a few years back.

      • Greg-

        You probably know the story of how CO2 came to labeled a pollutant, but many don’t. The six pollutants listed in your quote are called “criteria pollutants.” They are called that because they met the criteria set forth in the Clean Air Act (CAA) to be called a “pollutant.” The CAA required the EPA publish a document for each of these substances detailing what was known about how it harmed public heath and welfare, and what the atmospheric concentration limits should be. These were called “criteria documents.” The CAA required that any time a new substance was to be labeled a pollutant, a criteria document be developed and atmospheric limits be set.

        In the mid-70’s, when catalytic converters were installed on automobiles, it became evident that harmful gases might be produced in the catalytic converter. The CAA was amended to allow the EPA to investigate and control the emissions of these gases from mobile source (cars and trucks) emissions without going through the criteria process. These emissions were called “unregulated emissions” because they had not gone through the criteria process, and no ambient air levels were set for them.

        Then, forty years later, when the Obama administration want to call CO2 a pollutant, they could do it for mobile sources and set tailpipe limits, but they could NOT legally control CO2 from stationary sources (power plants, etc.) without going through the criteria process. The “Endangerment Finding” that went all the way the Supreme Court, was the EPA’s answer to getting around the criteria process.

        I still believe the EPA violated the CAA by declaring CO2 a pollutant without following the law and going through the criteria process.

    • But observations are good.
      If an action has an effect and we can see it we can judge if the cost was worth it.
      If we have to guess the effect how do we assess the change or the cost?

  2. ‘Look around you. Can you see the air? No?’
    But Greta says she can, even down to the 0.0004% that is CO2.
    How dare NASA doubt her!

    (PS – I know one should be kinder to poor souls on the spectrum, but her exploiters don’t seem to care.)

    • OOOPS two too many zeros in there I believe… should be 0.04 if I am not mistaken…
      400/1000000 = 0.04/100 = 0.04 % at leas that’s what my primary school maths tells me.

      • Greta the Grand (& her mommy) never said what her observational minimum was.

        It may well be higher … if it is 0.08% in her apartment her minimum may be up to that number. Or maybe it varies; and on a good day after she gets a full night of good rest she may well be able to see 0.0004%.

        You (slyrick & righthanded shark) don’t really know, and you shouldn’t be belittling her abilities.

      • The 0.04% is easy, and most of it more or less natural. It’s the fraction she can see being added by human activity that upsets her.

      • Notice yet again how some get the essential trace photosynthesising gas CO2 atmospheric levels wrong with decimal places … suggest detention & they must write 0.04% “Point Zero Four” out a FSC (fine structure constant 137) number times.

        Just an idea to help memorize.

        I’ve even seen some folks on twitter/f’book even state 4%, confusing our ave. breath output!

  3. According to the Global Burden of Disease report, air pollution is the leading environmental cause of mortality

    And from the Burden of Disease report there’s this:

    Using integrated exposure–response functions for each cause of death, we estimated the relative risk of mortality…

    Integrated exposure-response functions. Whatever that is. Sounds like post modernism to me.

    • Steve I think they mean that if some percent of a toxic element, say 10%, kills 50% of the people, then 2% of the toxic element kills 10% of the people, and 1% of the element kills 5% of the people, etc. This is the technique for calculating overweight health consequences, for instance, where only 2% overweight kills a much smaller percent of the population, but applies to a much greater number of the population. Same with exposure to radiation, just draw a straight line from kills you instantly to barely detectable, and at the lower exposure values it kills a tremendous number of people because it applies to a much greater percent of the population. All of this projecting does not consider if an actual threshold value needs to be exceeded before there is any effect. Oops! Researchers have announced findings that being somewhat overweight in your 70’s is a leading indicator of living to your 100’s. Having said that for sure I am not in favor of pollution.

      • Good points on extrapolation, but the presence of some toxins at low levels are well tolerated by the body. We’ve been breathing and eating them since we were pre-hominids. Radiation is interesting as it also is a constant in our lives and in some cases just a little bit more might be beneficial according to some studies.

        Then there are the exceptions. Living with Radon gas in your crawl space or basement over time at low levels can give you lung cancer or leukemia. And being obese and getting COVID-19 is a ticket to taking a dirt nap.

        The real problem with all this is the graphics that come out of the data. Bright reds and Barney purples can make anything look downright scary. And changing the scale on a simple X-Y graph can make your heart skip a beat. I always thought there needs to be a rule that says that if you publish a color graphic, you have to put out two identical ones with the colors flipped. That would help a lot.

        • We’ve been breathing and eating them since we were pre-hominids.

          But, but, but, ….. maybe that’s why our hominids ancestors evolved an appendix …… that we haven’t needed ……. until now!!!!!

          Eritas

      • The trouble with postmodern bafflegab is that it leads you to think you understand what’s being said rather than actually understanding what’s being said. That goes on for a sentence or two until you realize that you totally do not understand what’s being said.

        When you’re talking to an SJW postmodernist you have to demand clarification the moment there’s any ambiguity. They don’t understand what they are saying anyway. Their heads will explode and they will fly into a rage.

      • Ron, thanks for the explanation, and I did highlight the response function portion of the quote, but the real questionable phrase is, “We estimated” that’s like the lawyer joke about indicting a ham sandwich. Feynman said of developing a thesis, “first you guess.” I suppose there’s a fine line between guessing and estimating.

        • … the lawyer joke about indicting a ham sandwich.

          It’s not a joke. It’s a description of reality. Grand juries are a joke and a waste of time because the number of indictments they turn down approaches zero. link

  4. “I’d love to see a future where real-time Earth observation data is seamlessly and continuously available to everyone — from orbit to the palm of your hand,” said Haynes.

    Dear NASA – how about publishing near-real-time longwave emission and shortwave reflection data from high-resolution imagers on the geostationary satellites? That would surely show the world that heat energy cannot in fact be accumulated at the surface to harmful effect on the planet. The composite variable emitter/reflector visualizations could quickly resolve the inordinate fear of greenhouse gases.

  5. I fear this tool will be used by the left the same way they use photos of back-lit clouds of steam venting from chimneys as scary examples of pollution in TV documentaries, magazines, webpages, etc.

  6. Ellen Gray …

    “With the abundance of data coming in — there are dozens of Earth-observing satellites currently on IN orbit — “

  7. What a patronizing/propagandizing article from NASA. The poor little children suffering from bad old energy companies (but mom still drives them in a car to soccer practice).

    • beng135,
      “Patronizing/propagandizing….”
      Yep. That’s what struck me as well, as I read through this NASA exercise in self-back-patting.

      Also, this: “We funded a project led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assimilate NASA Earth observations into their “AirNow” system,” said program manager John Haynes.” Let’s be honest. The US taxpayer funds NASA and the EPA, and everything they spend our tax money on. The US taxpayer funds the “AirNow” system and NASA Earth observation, as well as all interactions between the 2 programs.

  8. “Look around. Can you see the air? No?”

    I’m from New Jersey. Sure I can. We would never trust air we can’t see. I mean, how would you know it’s really there?

  9. “NASA merges satellite data with models to provide a snapshot of chemistry throughout the atmosphere at any given time…”

    Real data merged with a model gives you… just a model.

    Garbage.

  10. Take a look at the big blue “ozone” artwork. One of the most oxidizing and shortly lived instable form of oxygen O3 that we know of.

    It’s title suggests that this document was issued on the 25th July 2018 at 0637 zero meridian time and it’s color scale goes from 0 to 100. In what units? If in % or even in 1/1000 of mass at ground level, then, most of us are dead and mummified since at such high levels nothing, including decomposing bacteria can survive.

    Over water bodies, surface ozone lives a few minutes before hastily forming some form of peroxide’s with the neighbor water molecules. Finding that much far from coasts over the sea/oceans could only mean intense cloud to surface lightening activity. Or more likely, cloud to cloud, in which case this is not surface level and not all over.

    Such bolts happen but not that many and all over at the same time.

    Over the ITC, Nasa’s grade of Ozone somehow follows air movements found at much higher than sea level altitudes and mysteriously abruptly completely vanishes at the geographic borders of Amazon’s “rain forests”. How cool is that ?

    Living in Greenland, where once again, ozone seems to exactly follow the coastline should be more dangerous than living in Germany and surprisingly enough, there are about as many ozone spitting jets and cars in Pyongyang as in Seoul.

    Ozone is an old friend. We, humans, perceive it at extremely low concentrations. The smell of thunder. Has saved many lives as the last warning sign that we’re headed into a big trouble and should urgently divert before flying into a hell of fully featured thunderstorm(s).

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