Olympic cleanup

Pictured from left: Prof. J. Hirokawa, Hokkaido University; Nathan Kellams, Valparaiso University; Ted Pietrzak, Valparaiso University; R. Saito, Hokkaido University.
Photo by Katherine Kuster

On August 6, 2008, just after 2 o’clock in the afternoon in Sapporo, Japan, physicist Gary Morris of Valparaiso University in Indiana surrendered the 6-foot-wide, solid-white weather balloon that he had just spent over an hour calibrating and preparing for its journey through the sky. The graduate students from Hokkaido University assigned to the launch eagerly accepted the instrument, and Morris headed up to the nearby rooftop observatory to make the last-minute checks before radioing the final “Go” to the students below.

“I’ve done a lot of balloon launches, [but] it was a little more nerve-wracking being in Japan launching,” Morris admits. “I wanted things to go smoothly.”

At 2:54 p.m.,...

Morris was interested in identifying air pollutants that can affect global warming and cause respiratory problems, which had traveled through the jet stream from China to Japan and continued over the North Pacific, some eventually reaching North America. In particular, he wanted to know if the Chinese government’s extensive efforts to improve the air quality in Beijing leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games, which began two days after his August 6th launch, had been successful.

So Morris and his Japanese collaborators launched 10 balloons during August 2008, recording ozone and sulfur dioxide (SO2) concentrations. The pumps and electrochemical cells rigged to Morris’s balloons are a classic method for measuring ozone, although these pumps are susceptible to interference by SO2. By adding a filter for SO2 to one, Morris is able to obtain pure ozone levels; subtracting the unfiltered from the filtered pump yields the levels of SO2.

These balloons measure hot air— specifically, the pollutants ozone and SO2.

Unfortunately, of the 10 balloon launches last year, only two had weather patterns suggesting that the local pollution was influenced by air from Beijing—as determined by meteorological models that predict patterns of air flow—including the very first launch on August 6. That day, surface ozone levels exceeded 60 parts per million (ppm), three times the typical levels in Sapporo of 20 ppm. This year, Morris returned to Japan to launch another 10 balloons.

Over the last decade or so, dramatic economic growth in China has resulted in increasing pollution and growing concern about its worldwide effects. “There [were] a lot of people concerned about how this air quality [would] impact the Olympic Games [and the] performance of athletes,” says atmospheric chemist Renyi Zhang of Texas A&M University, who has been recording air pollutants in Beijing for the last 3 years. As a result, the Chinese government implemented a number of pollution controls, including switching many coal-burning boilers to cleaner fuels, and closing a number of Beijing factories.

Satellite recordings revealed a reduction in primary pollutants over China during the Games, including a 13% reduction in SO2 compared to the previous 3 years (Geophys. Res. Lett., in press). The problem with satellite readings, however, is that they are looking down at the Earth from above, and thus they can’t measure the altitude of pollutants, says atmospheric scientist Mark Schoeberl of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, who has been in charge of the satellite since its launch in 2004. Altitude matters, he says: “if the SO2 gets lofted, then it has a greater probability of traveling long distances,” which has obvious implications for the global impact of air pollution. Morris’s balloons, on the other hand, measure the altitude of SO2 concentrations as they travel through the atmosphere.

“Pollution is on the radar screen in China now,” Morris says. “It wasn’t just the Olympics that made that happen, but [they] were certainly a catalyst. We’ll see how things pan out over the next couple of years.”

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