International Task Force Charged with Improving Air Quality Efforts

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SAN FRANCISCO — International air quality officials agreed Nov. 18 to establish a task force to strengthen global efforts to link space-based and ground-based efforts to measure pollutants and to improve the dissemination of information to government officials, community groups and individuals worldwide.

“The goal is to deliver not just the original information but synthesized and useful information,” said David McCabe, an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow working in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Research and Development.

The officials, meeting in Washington during the annual plenary session of the Group on Earth Observation — an environmental monitoring campaign that includes 80 national governments and the European Commission — plan to create an Air Quality Community of Practice, the working group that will coordinate efforts in this arena.

Primary goals of the new working group will be to link current air quality initiatives and to foster new projects. During the meeting, officials described programs underway, including Monitoring Atmospheric Composition and Climate (MACC), a pilot project launched in June by Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, the European Union’s Earth-observation initiative. MACC attempts to build an air quality system in Europe that is similar to weather-prediction systems because it not only combines information drawn from various data sources, including satellites, but also presents that information in maps and tools designed for local forecasting and analysis, said Dominique Marbouty, director of the London-based European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

Satellites already are capturing most of the data required to monitor air quality, Marbouty said. There is concern, however, that certain greenhouse gas measurements are not being obtained due to the loss of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, a NASA satellite that crashed into the ocean after a failed launch in February, he said.

In the United States, daily air quality forecasts for 300 major U.S. cities as well as ozone maps for 46 states and parts of Canada are provided by the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow program. EPA officials hope to expand AirNow to create an international network of agencies reporting air quality information and sharing data worldwide, said Scott Jackson, an environmental scientist with the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards. AirNow is conducting a pilot project in Shanghai, China, to deliver current information and forecasts of air quality in that city, Jackson said.

Similarly, Servir, a project that uses satellite and ground-based observations to monitor environmental changes and natural disasters in Central America and the Caribbean, is expanding to address air quality issues through Servir-Air. Last year, Servir-Air began offering air quality forecasts to researchers, journalists and communities in the region, including a Smog Blog with timely information on air pollution, said Emilio Sempris, director of the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean. Servir-Air, which is supported primarily by NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development, also offers training materials and online tutorials that demonstrate how satellite data can be used to assess local air quality, Sempris added.

One obstacle to linking international air quality initiatives is the reluctance on the part of some agencies and governments to share data. While air quality officials said their goal is to move toward free and open exchange of worldwide air quality data, it may be necessary initially to design networks that prevent data from  being redistributed unless that action is approved by the agency providing the data. The issue of data rights is one of the key points to be addressed by the air quality community’s new working group, according to Lawrence Friedl, program manager for Air Quality Applications at NASA headquarters in Washington.

In addition, the new working group will focus on identifying the type of air quality information that is most useful to customers. With that goal in mind, NASA officials are striving to improve communications between scientists working with Earth observations and end users to ensure that the products the space agency is developing are optimized for public use, said Doreen Neil, deputy program manager for Air Quality Applications in NASA’s Earth Sciences Division. Scientific knowledge, such as models or data, must be linked with decision-support tools designed to serve the customers, Neil said.

For example, a comprehensive air quality system would offer tools designed not only to help national leaders assess intercontinental movement of pollution but also to help individuals with respiratory problems decide whether it is safe to exercise outside on a specific day, McCabe said. “For air quality, the Global Earth Observation System of Systems is about more than access to observations,” he said. “It also encompasses distributed, service-oriented tools to compare, integrate, and visualize those observations.”