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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Weather Balloons Collect Air Pollution, Climate Data

SLU students Joseph Wilkins, Patrick Walsh, Jackie Ringhausen and Tim Barbeau (standing, from left to right), and Valparaiso Univ. trainers Alex Kotsakis and Mark Spychala (crouching, left to right) stabilize the balloon as it fills with helium. (Art Chimes/St. Louis Public Radio)

St. Louis University students Joseph Wilkins, Patrick Walsh, Jackie Ringhausen and Tim Barbeau (standing, from left to right), and Valparaiso University trainers Alex Kotsakis and Mark Spychala (crouching, left to right) stabilize the balloon as it fills with helium. (Art Chimes/St. Louis Public Radio)

Ozone is an essential part of the Earth’s upper atmosphere where it prevents damaging ultraviolet light from reaching the Earth’s surface.

Down near the ground, though, ozone emissions from industrial plants and cars can cause health problems.

Students at Saint Louis University are launching weather balloons as part of a nationwide study funded by NASA to improve our understanding of how ozone affects air pollution and the climate.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Véronique LaCapra of St. Louis Public Radio reports.




Well, moving on to ozone. It's an essential part of the earth's atmosphere. High in the stratosphere, it prevents damaging ultraviolet light from reaching the Earth's surface. But down at the surface, ozone emissions from industry and cars can cause significant health problems. Enter students from St. Louis University and a weather balloon.

From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, St. Louis Public Radio's Veronique LaCapra reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Background number one, point O-2, correct? Competition's to file default, serial number...

VERONIQUE LACAPRA, BYLINE: A small group of St. Louis University students are huddled around a laptop and radio receiver set up in front of the St. Louis Science Center planetarium. They're getting ready to participate in a NASA mission to measure ozone.


LACAPRA: That's the sound of data. Inside a small Styrofoam box, are a GPS and two little instruments that measure temperature, humidity, air pressure and ozone. A transmitter in the box broadcasts the data to a six-foot tall antenna connected to that beeping radio receiver. From there, an old-school modem translates the audio signal into 1s and 0s that the laptop converts into air quality measurements.

Once the students have checked that all the equipment is working, the next step is to attach the Styrofoam box with its instruments to a weather balloon that will carry everything up into the atmosphere. But first, they need to fill the balloon with helium - a lot of helium. Fully blown up, the balloon will be about eight to ten feet in diameter. The goal is to give it enough lift to carry it and its cargo up about 100,000 feet into the stratosphere. That's around the times as high as commercial airplanes fly.

GARY MORRIS: This is Gary Morris with the St. Louis University weather balloon launch team at the St. Louis planetarium. We're five minutes from the weather balloon launch.

LACAPRA: Valparaiso University Professor Gary Morris is checking in with the FAA. He's the lead trainer for the ozone balloon project. St. Louis is one of seven sites involved in the nationwide study. Morris says NASA wants to get more data on ozone because of the important roles it plays in our atmosphere, both good and bad.

High up in the stratosphere, the ozone layer absorbs sunlight and keeps harmful ultraviolet radiation from reaching the Earth. But down near the ground, emissions from sources like petrol chemical plants and cars can form ozone pollution and smog which can exacerbate respiratory problems like asthma.

JACK FISHMAN: And it's especially difficult on children who are still developing. So children who grow up in areas that are chronically exposed to high levels of ozone have more frequent rates of asthma.

LACAPRA: Jack Fishman worked for NASA for more than 30 years studying air pollution and atmospheric chemistry. Now, he's at St. Louis University where he's leading their ozone study. Fishman says, like carbon dioxide, ozone contributes to the greenhouse effect, both directly and by forming tiny particles known as aerosols.

FISHMAN: So this product is trying to understand the complexity of the chemistry and the clouds and other processes, meteorological processes that impact local meteorology, which, in turn, form the big picture of climate and in turn, climate change.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Okay. We're all good. Ready?

LACAPRA: Back at the St. Louis Science Center, it's launch time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Five, four, three, two, one. Lift off. All right.

LACAPRA: The balloon and its payload swoop upwards. St. Louis University senior William Aywasco(ph) is one of four undergrads on the launch team. He says launching the weather balloons in front of the planetarium gives kids who come by a chance to see science in action.

WILLIAM AYWASCO: And it helps to sort of build their excitement for science and especially meteorology so we hope we're developing little meteorologists here.

LACAPRA: Seven-year-old Dack Crawford (ph) says when he grows up, he wants to be a fireman. But the balloon launch definitely made an impression.

DACK CRAWFORD: That was amazing. It's so high that I can't even see it.

LACAPRA: The ozone balloon launches are scheduled to end this week. NASA plans to use the measurements to validate its satellite data and improve our understanding of ozone pollution. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Veronique LaCapra in St. Louis.

CHAKRABARTI: It's always great to hear young people get excited about science, isn't it? You know, if you've got any other ideas, weather balloons or the like, about how people should get excited about science, let us know at HERE AND NOW.org. We're always interested in hearing what you have to say about that. Coming up a little later in the show, pow-wow meets electronic dance music.

It's the electronic pow-wow with a group called A Tribe Called Red. The news is next HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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