Unreported Sources of Pollution Found By NASA
Air pollution is a problem being addressed by governments around the world. Treaties and pacts have been signed pledging to reduce harmful emissions and greenhouse gases. In June of 2016 an article was published in The Christian Science Monitor that indicates the problem with air pollution might be bigger than scientists originally believed.
Two major universities, along with NASA and Environment and Climate Change Canada, recently collaborated on a study that found major sources of pollution that scientists were previously unaware of.
There are areas in Mexico, Russia and the Middle East where factories and nuclear power plants are releasing more pollutants than scientists previously thought. The University of Maryland, along with College Park and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, participated in a study conducted by Environment and Climate Change Canada and NASA. During the course of their research, they found 39 unreported sources of toxic sulfur dioxide emissions that were man-made and classified as severe.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) routinely measures the amount of pollutants in the air. One of the six air pollutants regulated by the EPA is sulfur dioxide (SO2), along with ground level ozone, carbon monoxide, lead, particulate matter and nitrogen oxide. These reactive gases are collectively referred to as “oxides of sulfur,” and the levels are higher than expected. The largest contributor of SO2 emissions is industrial centers and power plants. Lesser levels are emitted by locomotive engines, large ships and heavy equipment.
Until recently, data on SO2 emissions was ground based, and fuel usage provided most of the statistical information. Now that NASA is helping scientists use satellite imagery, larger contributors of SO2 emissions are being found. Environmental agencies were unaware of some of these, while others were significantly underreported.
One of the scientists, the primary author of the published study, stated that it is easy to make accurate estimates of the amount of emissions with satellite images. The pollutants appear almost as “bulls eyes,” so scientists know exactly where to look for the source of the emissions. Now that researchers have an independent method separate from what they are being told, it is easier for them to see just how high the SO2 emissions really are.
The 39 newly found or underreported sources of SO2 were mainly located around the Persian Gulf in the Middle East, which makes sense to scientists given the large number of refineries and ships in the area. While Russia and Mexico only accounted for 12 percent of these man-made emissions, this level is still high enough to have a large impact on air quality and residents’ health. Sulfur dioxide is a strong smelling and irritating chemical that is often related to the occurrence of acid rain. The particles in the air can also cause severe health problems, especially in children and the elderly. Coal and oil burning factories are another contributor to SO2 emissions.
Until satellite imaging was created, monitoring air quality often required estimating levels, which was risky to people’s health because it was not accurate. Now scientists can use the satellite images taken from NASA’s Aura spacecraft and determine where the SO2 “hot spots” are and the exact level of emissions. The images allowed scientists to track the SO2 on wind currents, trace it back to the original source and even come up with a good estimate of how much had been released into the air over a specific period of time.
Not only did scientists discover 39 sources of man-made SO2 emissions, but the satellite imagery also found 75 natural sources. With these new techniques, scientists now have a better way to monitor air pollutants, which is good news for the environment and everyone’s health.