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Using Satellite Data to Map Air Pollution and Improve Health

NASA scientists will be teaming up with epidemiologists in the agency’s first health-focused mission. With satellite data, they’ll find out how air pollution affects health in cities around the world.

This map illustrates MAIA's multiangle measurement approach
This map illustrates MAIA’s multiangle measurement approach. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By Jackie Rocheleau 15 April 2021

For epidemiologists studying air pollution, there’s only so much to learn at ground level. So they’ve been taking advantage of aerosol data from NASA satellites to link health outcomes with local air pollution. But only recently have NASA and epidemiologists teamed up to start the space agency’s first mission focused on health.

NASA’s Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA) mission, scheduled for launch in 2022, will combine the expertise of planetary scientists and epidemiologists to answer a question that, before now, has been largely impossible at a large scale: What kind of air pollutant particles is most harmful to human health?

Of the different types of air pollutants, particulate matter (PM), especially particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5), poses some of the most severe health risks. These particles, which primarily form from combustion sources like fossil fuel use and wildfires, vary in composition but are small enough to pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. From there, they can travel all over the body. In the short-term, high PM2.5 levels in the air exacerbate respiratory diseases, whereas long-term exposure can even lead to premature death from heart and lung conditions. Scientists are predicting that climate change could worsen PM2.5 concentrations in some regions, though concentrations could decrease where emission sources are reduced. But even exposures below what regulators consider dangerous are associated with poor health outcomes, like increased mortality in older adults.

“We need to know what about the particles is the most toxic.”

To protect health, scientists need to know which PM components and sources are most harmful. Because PM sources differ between communities, that’s been a problem. “We can’t generalize from a traffic-related-pollution cardiovascular disease or a dementia link in urban areas to a rural area with mostly wood burning,” said Beate Ritz, an epidemiologist and environmental health scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a MAIA coinvestigator.

There’s also the added complication that PM is classified by size, not by kind. “It’s easy to measure the size, not the type,” said Patrick Kinney, Beverly Brown Professor of Urban Health at Boston University. Relative to ground monitoring techniques that record concentrations and sizes of PM, there’s expensive laboratory analysis needed to tease apart particulate types. “We need to know what about the particles is the most toxic,” said Ritz.

Enter MAIA

For the past 20 years, health researchers have been using publicly available data from NASA’s Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer (MISR) instrument to associate air pollution with health outcomes. But “an outstanding question is ‘which particular types and sources of particles are the most harmful?’” said David Diner, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and principal investigator of both MISR and MAIA.

Data from MAIA could answer that question. Aboard a commercial satellite from General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, MAIA will circle the globe in low-Earth orbit for 3 years, passing each target study area three times per week at the same local time each pass. To infer the composition of PM2.5, scientists will use the optical properties of particles measured by MAIA: the polarization of sunlight scattered by particles and images of the light at multiple angles in 14 electromagnetic wavelengths spanning from ultraviolet to short-wave infrared. Researchers will map PM2.5 concentrations and composition at the neighborhood level (a resolution of 1 square kilometer) in its 12 primary target cities in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Atmospheric chemistry, spatial, and statistical models will integrate the MAIA data and information from ground-based monitors to output a complete picture of ground-level concentrations of PM and components of PM2.5 in the target areas.

Kinney, a member of the independent scientific oversight committee but not part of the project, is excited about MAIA’s potential. But he’s cautious about taking satellite-based measures at face value. “We still should be careful to understand what the satellites are measuring,” he said. Like other satellite-based instruments, MAIA doesn’t measure particulates themselves, he said, but how they interact with light. (At ground level, scientists use filters to capture actual particles.)

Going Global

Epidemiologists plan to learn which particles are most toxic by linking PM data and population health records in each target area. They’ll study short- and long-term effects of PM exposure and adverse birth outcomes and cardiovascular disease, common issues tightly tied to air pollution.

The data, scientists say, are scalable. “There are many parts of the world where, especially in low- or middle-income countries, there’s just no ground-level monitoring or very, very sparse ground-level monitoring,” said Ritz.

“As time goes on, if we find out which components are driving the health effects, then that’ll help us target interventions.”
“We can do these health outcome studies in countries that do not have electronic medical records,” she continued. “If we can get [birth] data and mortality data in terms of cardiovascular disease, that’s enough to show that there’s an impact from air pollution on these outcomes.”

Ultimately, MAIA’s broad, high-resolution data will allow researchers to understand which communities are most affected by air pollution and what sources are responsible. For the past few years, Ritz has been working with interested scientists in MAIA’s target areas, helping them set up their research infrastructure. “What’s important about MAIA is that it will build these models based on very [data] rich areas, like Los Angeles,” said Ritz. “But then, [researchers] will apply these models to other parts of the country or the world, where ground monitoring doesn’t exist.” That kind of data, Ritz said, could provide momentum for air pollution regulations.

“It could help us understand the disparities in exposure and also understand how to address them by going after the sources that are responsible,” said Kinney. “And as time goes on, if we find out which components are driving the health effects, then that’ll help us target interventions.”

—Jackie Rocheleau (@JackieRocheleau), Science Writer

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on “Living Through the Climate Emergency.” Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Reposted from original story

Citation: Rocheleau, J. (2021), Using satellite data to map air pollution and improve health, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO157069. Published on 15 April 2021.
Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.

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ACT America

Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America
(ACT-America)

https://act-america.larc.nasa.gov/
https://blogs.nasa.gov/earthexpeditions/tag/act-america/

Flying with the gases that impact the climate around you. Making the invisible journey visible.

Track carbon footprints across the sky and through four seasons!
ACT-America is on the hunt for greenhouse gases from our ground and in our air. The project measured both natural and human-based methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) to identify how these gases are created, where they go and what absorbs them. Understanding the carbon cycle is powerful knowledge. It means we can predict future climate impacts, develop smarter mitigation strategies, and create fact-based policy. Imagine the benefit from “seeing” where these invisible gases are coming from and where they go.

“ACT-America measurements fill a critical gap in our understanding of the sources, sinks and transport of climate-altering greenhouse gasses. We now see how weather stirs the atmosphere and mixes these gasses across the continent, like a large spoon mixing the cream in your coffee.” – Ken Davis, Principal Investigator

The ACT-America investigation featured five seasonal aircraft campaigns spread over three years, across the eastern and central regions of the United States. Instruments aboard a NASA C-130 and a NASA B-200 aircraft measured greenhouse gasses and indicators of the origins of these greenhouse gases and tracked how weather systems transport them. The aircraft data are part of a growing network of observations that will track the “footprints” of greenhouse gases to enable: 1) policy makers, citizens and industry to understand how their actions are changing the earth’s climate; 2) knowledge of natural gas leaks and awareness of opportunities to minimize these losses; 3) how the earth’s ecosystems contribute to the carbon cycle; and 4) accurate forecasting of future climate. ACT-America’s data can be found here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c76TfzEJLPo

Related Projects

ACT-America measurements fill a critical gap in our understanding of the sources, sinks and transport of climate-altering greenhouse gasses. We now see how weather stirs the atmosphere and mixes these gasses across the continent, like a large spoon mixing the cream in your coffee.

 
 

ACTIVATE

Aerosol Cloud meTeorology Interactions oVer the western ATlantic Experiment (ACTIVATE)

https://activate.larc.nasa.gov/

Riding the marine layer skies looking for aerosol particles – to predict future climate change.

Simulate climate and predict change as it happens!

NASA’s ACTIVATE mission is on the hunt for clouds off the coast over the western Atlantic Ocean! It is looking for answers to help us understand how clouds and aerosols (particles in the air) affect light and heat from the sun. The size and number of cloud droplets within a cloud determines things like how long the cloud lasts, how well it traps heat at the earth’s surface, or how well it reflects sunlight. All of these can have a significant impact on the earth’s climate. One of the largest unknowns in climate change is how the interaction between clouds and aerosols impacts the climate and understanding this is critical towards improving predictions of how future climate will be impacted by human emissions.

“Climate change is one of the most pressing issues we are facing on this planet; it is important for all regions of the world. I have spent my research career studying aerosol particles and the extension to how these particles interact with clouds has opened up a whole new avenue of greater challenges that entices me. The research involves using airborne platforms, which has always been of interest to me as I have always been drawn to airplanes.” – Armin Sorooshian, Principal Investigator

NASA’s ACTIVATE investigation is a five-year project studying how clouds and aerosols interact. Aerosols are very tiny particles that are suspended in the atmosphere and are often the “seed that cloud droplets form around. ACTIVATE focuses on marine boundary layer (MBL) clouds off of the east coast of North America. This region sees a large source of aerosols transported from the US eastern seaboard, making it an ideal area to study these interactions. ACTIVATE is aiming to collect a dataset on aerosol and cloud interactions of unprecedented size and statistics. What’s unique about this investigation? NASA Langley’s King Air and the HU-25A Falcon aircraft are flying together in coordinated patterns to simultaneously gather data from well above the clouds and from directly within the vicinity of the cloud deck itself. These data for both aerosols and clouds will give scientists better understanding as to how these mediums interact and affect our climate.

Related Projects

CALIPSO

NAAMESlogo

NAAMES

ORACLES

ORACLES

NASA’s ACTIVATE mission is on the hunt for clouds off the coast over the western Atlantic Ocean! It is looking for answers to help us understand how clouds and aerosols (particles in the air) affect light and heat from the sun.

 

Air

ACT America

ACT-America measurements fill a critical gap in our understanding of the sources, sinks and transport of climate-altering greenhouse gasses. We now see how weather stirs the atmosphere […]
CloudSat2

CloudSat

NASA launched the CloudSat and the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) spacecraft to study the role that clouds and aerosols play in regulating Earth’s […]
DCOTTS

DCOTSS

During the summer, strong convective storms over North America overshoot the tropopause into the lower stratosphere. These storms carry water and pollutants from the troposphere into the […]

EPOCH

Over the past five years, tropical activity in the East Pacific has increased, while decreasing in the Atlantic Basin. In addition, during El Niño years, warmer than […]

GeoCarb

GeoCarb’s mission is to study Earth’s carbon cycle: The exchange of carbon among land, ocean, plants and animals, via processes like respiration and photosynthesis from the biosphere […]
IMPACTS

IMPACTS

New NASA research project employs an impressive array of technology to discern how and why intense bands of snow form in winter storms in order to supply […]
Libera

Libera

NASA has selected a new space-based instrument as an innovative and cost-effective approach to maintaining the 40-year data record of the balance between the solar radiation entering […]
NAAMESlogo

NAAMES

The North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES) is a five year investigation to resolve key processes controlling ocean system function, their influences on atmospheric aerosols […]
RaD-X

RaD-X

The NASA Radiation Dosimetry Experiment (RaD-X) high-altitude balloon mission was successfully launched from Fort Sumner, New Mexico on 25 September, 2015. Over 20 hours of science data […]

TROPICS

Tropical cyclones have been a source of some of the most devastating natural disasters, claiming countless lives, accounting for more than half of U.S. billion-dollar natural disaster […]
Fleet Photo

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Atmospheric Tomography Mission (ATOM)

Atmospheric Tomography Mission (ATOM)

Come journey with us and see your impact on the earths’ atmosphere! Can we slow global warming and improve air?

Atom studies the impact of human-produced air pollution on greenhouse gasses and the atmosphere. Pollution changes the air we are breathing right now. This is powerful information for improving our current and future air quality. It helps policy makers with actionable facts and informs modified behavior. We can actually measure our combined impact.​

NASA’s AToM has a flying laboratory aboard the DC-8 aircraft. 42 scientists and operations crew flew with AToM on a 26-day journey from nearly pole to pole and back again. They measured more than 200 gases and airborne particles from the remotest parts of the atmosphere and learned how various greenhouse gases cycle around the world. Atom shows how it’s all one interconnected atmosphere no matter where in the world you are!​

Atom studies the impact of human-produced air pollution on greenhouse gasses and the atmosphere. Pollution changes the air we are breathing right now. This is powerful information for improving our current and future air quality. It helps policy makers with actionable facts and informs modified behavior. We can actually measure our combined impact

 
 

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CALIPSO

Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO)

 
 

https://www-calipso.larc.nasa.gov/
https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/calipso/main/index.html

The CALIPSO satellite provides new insight into the role that clouds and atmospheric aerosols play in regulating Earth’s weather, climate, and air quality.

CALIPSO combines an active lidar instrument with passive infrared and visible imagers to probe the vertical structure and properties of thin clouds and aerosols over the globe. CALIPSO was launched on April 28, 2006, with the CloudSat satellite.

CALIPSO and CloudSat are highly complementary and together provide new, never-before-seen 3D perspectives of how clouds and aerosols form, evolve, and affect weather and climate. CALIPSO and CloudSat fly in formation with three other satellites in the A-train constellation to enable an even greater understanding of our climate system.

The CALIPSO satellite provides new insight into the role that clouds and atmospheric aerosols play in regulating Earth’s weather, climate, and air quality.

CloudSat

CloudSat2 

CloudSat

https://cloudsat.atmos.colostate.edu/home

https://cloudsat.atmos.colostate.edu/data

 

CloudSat is one of NASA’s weather and climate-tracking satellites, and from its name, it’s apparent what it measures – clouds!! Clouds have an enormous influence on Earth’s weather, climate and energy balance, and CloudSat has been helping scientists learn about clouds since it was launched on a Delta II rocket in 2006. From providing a view from space as we watch an approaching hurricane to providing details about how clouds impact radiation from the sun and the climate, CloudSat has been understanding the impact of clouds for nearly 15 years.

The cloud radar on CloudSat is 1000 times more sensitive than most weather radars on the ground. With its long history sending us data about clouds, CloudSat has contributed so much valuable information! CloudSat provides a never-before-seen perspective on clouds; its radar allows us to see inside the large cloud masses that make our weather. This helps us understand processes such as those that convert the tiny cloud particles to precipitation. Key discoveries from CloudSat have included how often the clouds above Earth rain and snow, how much ice and water are in clouds, and how clouds heat or cool the atmosphere. Cloudsat measurements have shown how pollution, volcanic ash, and other aerosols can interact with clouds and affect both precipitation and how efficiently clouds reflect sunlight, which has a huge impact on climate. The cloud and precipitation measurements from CloudSat have been used to track the intensity and patterns of tropical cyclones as they become hurricanes. All of these critical observations will ultimately help us predict the effects of clouds on our climate and improve our predictions of climate change.

NASA launched the CloudSat and the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) spacecraft to study the role that clouds and aerosols play in regulating Earth’s weather, climate and air quality.

 

DCOTSS

Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere (DCOTSS)

https://dcotss.org/
 

During the summer, strong convective storms over North America overshoot the tropopause into the lower stratosphere. These storms carry water and pollutants from the troposphere into the normally very dry stratosphere, where they can have a significant impact on radiative and chemical processes, potentially including stratospheric ozone. The photo below, taken from the International Space Station, shows one of these storms with an anvil, which is typically near the tropopause level; an overshooting top; and a plume of cirrus (ice) clouds injected into the stratosphere by the overshooting top. Overshooting tops can reach many kilometers above the tropopause into the stratosphere.

During the summer, strong convective storms over North America overshoot the tropopause into the lower stratosphere. These storms carry water and pollutants from the troposphere into the normally very dry stratosphere, where they can have a significant impact on radiative and chemical processes, potentially including stratospheric ozone.

 
 

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GeoCarb

Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory (GeoCarb)

by ‎@GeoCarb22
http://ou.edu/geocarb

Paving the Way for Future Earth Science Missions

GeoCarb’s mission is to study Earth’s carbon cycle: The exchange of carbon among land, ocean, plants and animals, via processes like respiration and photosynthesis from the biosphere and burning fossil fuels. Carbon is the foundation of all life on Earth and understanding its circulation throughout the Earth system is crucial for understanding ecosystem health and services, ocean biodiversity and acidity, crop production, climate change and much more.

“Because the GeoCarb Mission provides persistent daytime measurements from a geostationary orbit of the concentration of the three important carbon gases: carbon dioxide, methane, and carbon dioxide every day under changing conditions at fine spatial scales that it will provide the information needed for breakthrough investigations into the global carbon cycle. In sum, GeoCarb will provide the basis for a transformational improvement in our understanding of the carbon cycle, and it will demonstrate an effective approach to monitoring CO2 and CH4, the two most important greenhouse gasses that is synergistic with greenhouse gas measurements from low Earth orbit by missions such as OCO-2, OCO-3, GOSAT, and GOSAT-2.” – Berrien Moore, GeoCarb Principal Investigator

GeoCarb will focus on two aspects of the carbon cycle. By measuring the daily concentration of carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide over North and South America, GeoCarb will track changes in these gases over time, yielding insights into where carbon is being absorbed or released into the atmosphere. The mission will also measure solar-induced fluorescence – a faint red or infrared glow emitted by plants during photosynthesis. Together, these measurements will give scientists a clearer picture of how plants absorb and release carbon as they “breathe” during daily photosynthesis – and how this process is changing over time.

GeoCarb’s instrument is a spectrometer, which measures the wavelengths of incoming light to determine composition of gases and other atmospheric state variables. GeoCarb’s four measured wavelength regions allow it to measure the three greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide), as well as oxygen, which helps the team calculate the mixing ratio (column concentrations) of gases in the atmospheric column. The channel used to obtain oxygen concentrations also procies a measure of solar-induced fluorescence and other atmospheric characteristics. Understanding the role of plant photosynthesis in the carbon cycle will help scientists predict how atmospheric carbon concentrations could affect climate and other Earth systems in the future.

GeoCarb’s mission is to study Earth’s carbon cycle: The exchange of carbon among land, ocean, plants and animals, via processes like respiration and photosynthesis from the biosphere and burning fossil fuels. Carbon is the foundation of all life on Earth and understanding its circulation throughout the Earth system is crucial for understanding ecosystem health and services, ocean biodiversity and acidity, crop production, climate change and much more.

 
 

IMPACTS

IMPACTS

Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms (IMPACTS)

New NASA research project employs an impressive array of technology to discern how and why intense bands of snow form in winter storms in order to supply forecasters with data to improve predictions of severe winter snowfall.

IMPACTS is carrying out several major field campaigns that will study how snow bands develop and grow in hazardous East Coast snowstorms, something that has not been the focus of a major research campaign in 30 years! The US East Coast has many large cities and population centers, so the snow from these snowstorms can have a big societal impact on transportation, commerce, and public safety. The data that IMPACTS collects will be used to improve how we forecast snow. Heavy snow falls from long narrow “snow bands” within storms. The unevenness of the snow bands within the storm is what makes predicting snowfall amounts so difficult. Which storms have strong snow bands and which storms do not? Can we measure snowfall from these narrow snow bands from space? Can we predict the location of the most intense snowfall? IMPACTS will help us find out! Better predictions mean communities can be proactive in protecting populations from oncoming hazards and disruptions.

“I have loved watching clouds and the sky for as long as I can remember. I have always loved doing outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking, biking and gardening, and understanding the weather, clouds and processes that create the rain and snow help me decide when and where to do those activities. Now as a scientist I not only get to admire the sky and the clouds, but learn about my favorite storms – snowstorms – and learn about them on all scales, down to the processes that make the snow and organize the snow into snowbands.” – Lynn McMurdie

Two NASA aircraft are being used by IMPACTS to go ‘snowstorm chasing’ during three wintertime field campaigns over a three-year period. The NASA ER-2 aircraft flies above the clouds at heights of more than 15 km (9 miles), and carries instruments such as radars, lidars, and microwave sensors that are similar to instruments on satellites now. The second aircraft is the NASA P-3B, and it flies within the snowstorm. The P3B carries instruments that directly sample characteristics of the snowstorm, such as the shapes and sizes of the snow crystals and the environment in which they form. These two aircraft fly coordinated patterns within, above, and around snowstorms as the storms develop, taking data so the scientists can learn exactly how intense snow bands develop within the storms. The data from the remote sensing instruments on the ER-2 aircraft will also help scientists improve our ability to measure snow from satellites.

 

IMPACTS collects data from a “satellite-simulating” ER-2 and in-situ measurements from a cloud penetrating P-3, augmented by ground-based radar and rawinsonde data, multiple NASA and NOAA satellites [including GPM, GOES-16, and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)], and computer simulations. The ER-2 and P-3 provide the flight-altitude and long-endurance capabilities and payload capacity needed for the combined remote sensing and in-situ measurements.

 
 

Related Projects

ACT America

CloudSat2

CloudSat

DCOTTS

DCOTSS

EPOCH

GeoCarb

IMPACTS

IMPACTS

Libera

Libera

NAAMESlogo

NAAMES

RaD-X

RaD-X

TROPICS

Fleet Photo

Other Air News

New NASA research project employs an impressive array of technology to discern how and why intense bands of snow form in winter storms in order to supply forecasters with data to improve predictions of severe winter snowfall.

 
 

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