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Bad air days

A different kind of detective is closing in on the complex causes of and some possible solutions for those smoggy summer skies.

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It's the kind of sultry, late July day that drives tourists and locals to the beach for a cool ocean dip. But for atmospheric scientists aboard the research vessel Ronald H. Brown, the day is just what they've been looking for: ideal for cooking up smog.

"These are the kind of conditions we love," says Fred Fehsenfeld, as the 274-foot ship rides the tide down the Piscataqua River.

The atmospheric chemist and a small army of colleagues hope to analyze those conditions that lead to smog to help solve the riddle of air pollution in New England. Over the next five years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has budgeted $9.4 million for the New England Air Quality Study, which is designed to determine how smog forms in the Northeast and what its patterns of movement are. It already has raised significant questions about prevailing notions that Northeast air pollution comes primarily from industry and power plants in the Ohio Valley. And its lessons could have implications in other parts of the country as well.

The study's results, combined with earlier studies in Nashville, Atlanta, and along the Pacific Coast, could help build reliable forecasting tools to warn the public up to three days in advance of a bad-air day.

Scientists hope to do this by building better pollution-forecast models based on their new research. The first step has been to gain a better sense of the sources of air pollution and the way it spreads.

Scientists know that ozone forms through a series of chemical reactions that combine oxides of nitrogen – a byproduct of burning fossil fuels – and natural as well as manmade hydrocarbons. Sunlight provides the energy for these reactions.

That said, the patterns of smog are not all the same. As a result, scientists are learning, as Dr. Fehsenfeld of NOAA's Aeronomy Laboratory in Boulder, Colo, puts it, that air pollution regulations should not be designed like men's socks. "One size," he says, "does not fit all."

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