Scientists look for signs of pollution in the superhighway in the sky

If you think traffic is getting worse on your commute, you're not alone. Hundreds of commercial airline flights carry thousands of passengers from the U.S. to Europe each day-traveling along what has become the busiest jet super highway in the world: the Atlantic corridor. Could all of that air traffic exhaust be a detriment to the atmosphere at 35,000 feet the way that auto exhaust pollutes the air we breathe?

In a study to be released in the Oct. 15 issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, NASA scientists found that the atmosphere over the Atlantic acts nothing like the Los Angeles basin when it comes to collecting ozone-the chemical responsible for smog.

The key chemical in creating ozone is nitric oxide, a byproduct of aircraft and rocket exhaust, said Dr. Anne Thompson, a Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, Md.) atmospheric scientist who led the study as part of NASA's Atmospheric Affects of Aviation Experiment. Increasing the amount of nitrogen oxides increases the amount of ozone. "When we cross the jet tracks an hour after they pass by, it's easy to find their chemical trail," said Thompson. But when the scientists looked for increased levels of smog chemistry covering the entire flight corridor, they couldn't find them, she said.

What complicated the gas analyses is that ozone and nitrogen oxides have several ways of working their way six miles up into the atmosphere. The gases can come from below, when man-made smog is funneled up during a thunderstorm. Ozone can meander down from the stratosphere where it acts as Earth's ultraviolet shield. And nitrogen oxides in large amounts can be produced on the spot by lightning strikes. So it becomes very difficult to unequivocally pin down where the nitrogen oxides and ozone are coming from.

Another critical ingredient complicating the November 1997 study was the year's powerful El Niño. Thompson found that on the eastern side of t

Contact: Cynthia O'Carroll
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

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