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Autumn foliage may affect air quality, climate

BOULDER--Autumn leaves that light up hillsides in bold strokes of gold and other colors also appear to play a role in regional air quality and climate. This month scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) are measuring levels of chemicals that are emitted as leaves change color and fall to the ground at a research site in northern Michigan. The chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), have far-ranging effects: they combine with certain types of industrial emissions to create smog, and in some cases they play a role in global warming.

"VOCs are very important for both regional and global air quality issues," said NCAR's Alex Guenther. VOCs, which are the source of the appealing scents associated with pine needles and cut grass, pose no harm in a natural setting. But they can react with human-generated nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight to form ground-level ozone, the major component of smog. The emissions also have an impact on climate by slowing the rate at which greenhouse gases are oxidized in the atmosphere.

To measure foliage emissions, scientists from NCAR and other institutions are taking continuous readings above the forest canopy near Pellston, Michigan. Their instruments track both updrafts and downdrafts, monitoring ions that collide and transfer protons to the VOCs. "It's a very sophisticated observing system," Guenther explained.

The scientists picked Michigan in part because the area's abrupt, heavy frosts are likely to result in high emissions. In contrast, when leaves lose their summer green and wither more gradually, as in the southeast, the result is likely to be lower emissions that linger over a longer period of time. Preliminary findings show that concentrations of at least two VOCs, methanol and acetaldehyde, more than doubled after a week of colder weather (September 21-28), which signaled the beginning of autumn colors
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Contact: Anatta
anatta@ucar.edu
303-497-8604
National Center for Atmospheric Research/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
24-Oct-2001


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