Research Highlight: A Break in the Clouds?


To help Olympic athletes breathe a little easier, Beijing plans to limit traffic when the summer games begin Aug. 8.

And to see if this and other mitigation measures are making a noticeable dent in the city’s emissions, Scripps Institution of Oceanography atmospheric and climate scientist V. Ramanathan hopes to monitor the region’s air — from South Korea.

Ramanathan plans to launch a small formation of unmanned aircraft from South Korea’s Cheju Island, which is located downwind from Beijing. The aircraft will look for changes in the quantity and composition of air pollution particles during the 17-day period that the games are taking place.

The field study is part of a larger effort by Ramanathan to understand the nature and effects of black carbon emissions from various sources in south Asia. A combination of traditional practices and rapidly expanding industrial activities have created in recent decades a phenomenon known as an atmospheric brown cloud (ABC), a mass of particulate pollution capable of disrupting rainfall patterns, cloud formation and air temperatures.

In 2005, Ramanathan and his team first successfully used the unmanned aircraft, which carry a payload of miniaturized meteorological instruments, to record atmospheric conditions. The aircraft represented a breakthrough in climate observation by providing an unprecedented dimensional profile of clouds and aerosols.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation fund this project. Ramanathan, who delivered a report on the threat posed by ABCs in February to the environmental ministers of China and India, said that Chinese officials are also stepping up efforts to study the problem as part of a larger endeavor to address their country’s emissions of soot and other forms of black carbon.

“I’ve been delighted to see that the Chinese officials are supportive and that they’ve announced major activities to study the ABC problem in China,” Ramanathan said.

— Robert Monroe

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