In the past week alone, Xinrong Ren has made four flights. However, he is actually not going anywhere. Ren is a senior scientist at the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Maryland. Since February, he has been climbing a sky as part of a federal research project with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to measure how much air pollution in the northeast has decreased during the coronavirus pandemic.
The results could help improve the performance of models that predict future air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. It is important to understand what steps the US must ultimately take to deal with the climate crisis.
“This pandemic provides a unique, unprecedented opportunity for the scientific community,” Ren told Earther. “This is a great opportunity to see how our changes in activity reduce emissions.”
Satellite data have shown that air pollution is in this part of the United States declining. In the northeast was nitrogen dioxide 30 percent lower in March 2020 compared to March last year. The flights provide a closer look at pollution and go further by analyzing other pollutants such as ozone and carbon monoxide and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
Research involves collecting data on specific air pollutants and comparing them to wind patterns to find out what pollution is coming in and out of urban areas – and where. Depending on the pollutant ratio, scientists can often determine whether the source is, for example, a power plant or a vehicle. This helps to draw a clearer picture of what is happening on site.
All Ren flights depart from Maryland. Before flying into the sky, the researchers need up to three hours on the ground to set up the equipment for a flight of no more than four hours. Usually, about 10 people can fit on the Cessna. But Ren’s mission requires about £ 500. of devices for collecting data. Once loaded onto the plane, there is only room for Ren, the pilot, and occasional student training on how to use the hand tools.
By calibrating the instruments on the ground, Ren can help control the flight. Sometimes he uses real-time data coming in through these machines to advise pilots where to fly. The changes in air quality are not visible from the aircraft, but the instruments have covered it. The course of the flight is determined in advance. However, if Ren detects an increase in pollution on the screen, he can cause the pilot to redirect the aircraft to find the source. Once they are back on the ground, Ren can get a full picture of what was taken up in the air during his time.
Sometimes instruments fail in mid-flight. They can usually be repaired fairly easily during the trip, but sometimes the team doesn’t recognize the problem until the flight is over. It’s always shit, but success and science make it worth it, even if Ren has to deal with a little air sickness.
Ren has flown these research flights with NOAA since 2018, but they got a new urgency during the pandemic. Air pollution data is always valuable, but scientists are unlikely to see such a sharp and immediate reduction in pollution. Ren has made more flights recently because some states are already operating flights Misleadinged steps to reopen their economies. This means that the window for collecting this data becomes smaller. Although provisional, the data are meaningful.
“Most people stay at home,” said Ren. “There is not as much traffic as before the crisis, so we see a reduction in air pollutants and greenhouse gases.”
These changes in air quality won’t last long, but the data will. These numbers and measurements are likely to be used for the coming years when scientific teams evaluate how climate models can be optimized to get a clearer picture of the impact of vehicles and power plants on carbon emissions.