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

he Atlantic, clean air made aircraft exhaust easy to find. But over Maine and Canada, nitrogen oxides from summer-like thunderstorms and lightning swamped the aircraft signal, leaving scientists to wonder how typical their sampling period was.

Since ozone at 35,000 feet can't hurt your lungs or make your eyes water, why do scientists care about air quality there? According to Thompson, when ozone gets that high up, it starts to act like a greenhouse gas and can contribute to global warming. "So knowing how airliners and rockets add to the picture is important for climate research," she said.

In the Fall of 1997, the scientists in the Subsonic Assessment Ozone and Nitrogen Oxides Experiment (SONEX) set out to see if the high volume of airline travel was helping heat up the globe. The team flew for more than 100 hours from Bangor, Maine, Azores and Shannon, Ireland in a specially equipped NASA DC-8, collecting samples of the air's chemistry.

In the end, Thompson said, the findings showed that jet aircraft, which burn very "clean," fuel, probably added a few tens of parts per trillion of nitrogen oxides to the atmosphere. That's the equivalent of adding 10 molecules of nitrogen oxides to a trillion molecules of air. But the air that far up is so clean, even such a small number of molecules could be an increase in nitrogen oxides of more than 20 percent, said Thompson.

For now, Thompson contends that ozone impacts along the Atlantic Corridor are too small to detect, but according to industry specialists, who indicate that the future holds a steady increase in air traffic, makes understanding the effects of air travel on the global climate increasingly important.


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

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