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Boulder researchers say landmark air pollution study getting results

Charlie Brennan | Boulder Daily Camera, Colo.

You’ve likely seen the curious looking C-130 aircraft — the one with the snowflake gracing its tail — flying surprisingly low, from numerous vantage points throughout Boulder County and beyond.

By the time you get used to it, it will be gone — but the data it is collecting, in concert with other aircraft and ground-based instruments, should be productive for a long time to come. The C-130 is just one of the high-profile tools being used in the ongoing Front Range Air Pollution and Photochemistry Experiment, dubbed FRAPP.

Gabriele Pfister, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, is co-principal investigator on the $3.5 million project, along with NCAR’s Frank Flocke.

“We have heard positive and we have heard negative feedback” from the flights that have taken off from Broomfield’s Rocky Mountain Municipal Airport several times a week, weather permitting, Pfister said.

“We had nearly a thousand people who came to our open house (Aug. 2), and many of the people actually came because they saw the airplane and wanted to know what else was going on there,” she said.

“And then, you have the people who complain, who say ‘I don’t want to have airplanes flying over my head; fly over someone else’s back yard.’ But at the end, you try to do something good for the people, here. If we can address some of the issue of ozone pollution better, everyone living in the area will benefit from that.”

Overlapping with, benefiting from, NASA project

The end, in fact, is near.

FRAPP , which launched on July 16, had been set to conclude by Aug. 16, in part because the hottest days of summer — ozone is formed through a combination of pollution and sunlight — will be history. Also, funding for the C-130 flights, about $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation, also will not enable the aircraft to keep serving the project beyond Aug. 22.

Related: CU-Boulder, NCAR create ‘ozone garden’ to show effects of air pollution on plants

The comprehensive study has hardly been dependent on just the one aircraft.

FRAPP is coordinated with the NASA DISCOVER-AQ project, which has been employing NASA aircraft and Earth-observing satellites since 2011 to measure air quality, distinguishing between high pollution in the atmosphere and that which is closer to the surface.

NASA’s contribution to the Colorado study, with a P-3B turboprop plane, which also has been buzzing the Front Range at as low as 1,000 feet, and a two-engine B200 King Air aircraft, ended Sunday.

“We’ve tried to do as many of the flights as we can while DISCOVER-AQ was here, to work closely and coordinate much as possible,” Pfister said. “By having all the NASA aircraft and ground instrumentation and balloons, there are a lot more additional measurements; we’re trying to overlap as much as possible.”

Even with the NASA aircraft out of the picture, NCAR’s C-130, augmented by a tethered balloon and mobile vans, will continue collecting data through the study’s completion.

With cooler summer, fewer high ozone days

Gordon Pierce, technical services program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, another partner in the FRAPP project, said the project has been progressing well.

However, he said, “The weather certainly is a factor that hasn’t helped us this year with it being so rainy. It hasn’t given us enough good clear days for flying — or, as many as we would have liked.

Pierce also noted that with the lack of much severe heat this summer, “The ozone levels have been quite a bit lower this year, overall.”

But he added, “There have been days where we had upslope conditions with ozone occurring, so we have been able to see the chemistry going on. It’s been very interesting, and I think the wealth of data that’s coming in is going to be wonderful to look at. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort, but it’s going to provide a lot of good information.”

The state’s contribution to the study is $2 million.

The data collected from the project should be released by early 2015, Pierce said, but will take “years” to analyze fully.

Nearly 200 scientists are involved with the project, including researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.


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