NASA satellites may soon provide a system to predict the quality of air, such as global forecasts of air pollution near the ground where it affects human health, say scientists.
Richard Engelen of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading, United Kingdom, says that such a system may prove useful in efforts to improve air quality, assess the effectiveness of environmental regulations, and address the challenge of climate change.
"Regional modeling is already getting quite meaningful," he says.
Currently, air quality forecasts are possible up to a few days in advance in Europe, where there has been a concerted effort to combine atmospheric composition data from satellites and ground stations into the existing backbone of weather forecast computer models.
In the US, planning for the application of satellite data in regional air quality forecast model is underway at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
According to researchers, better observations are required for forecasts to become more accurate and global, and that is where NASA satellites are helping to fill in the gaps.
"To really do an accurate job of forecasting air quality, you have to know what pollution is coming in from upwind," says Kenneth Pickering of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, who studies the chemistry and movement of gases through the atmosphere.
Pickering also revealed that satellite instruments were used in a recent study to look at air quality in Houston, Texas, a city with major air quality problems.
Data from the two instruments on NASA's Aura satellite showed researchers that not all of Houston's pollution was locally caused, and that there was significant long-range transport from the Midwest and Ohio Valley.
"Although the finding was made possible by a computer model, it was greatly aided by the Aura satellite data," Pickering says.
Satellite data are still facing challenges and researchers are trying to find ways to tease out specific information, such as how much of the polluting gas exists at a specific altitude.
"More research is needed to determine the value of the current data and to develop improved sensors for future satellites," said Pickering.
The researchers feel that the blend of the increased transported air pollution and the interface in climatic changes and air quality puts a greater premium on satellite imagery for air quality applications.
The European project on the Global and Regional Earth-system (Atmosphere) Monitoring Using Satellite and In-Situ Data project are presently in the experimental stage.
United States is planning for the application of satellite data in regional air quality forecast model at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).