NASA Discovered Unreported Sources of Air Pollution

BEACON TRANSCRIPT – NASA discovered unreported sources of air pollution, according to a new report published earlier this week. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has located up to 39 unreported sources of toxic sulfur emission, using a brand new satellite-based method.

"NASA Discovered Unreported Sources of Air Pollution"

Sulfur dioxide is a contributor to acid rain and one of the main factors of respiratory illnesses.

The 39 newly discovered emission sources were found after analyzing satellite data from 2005 to 2014. These sources are coal-burning power plants, oil and gas operations, and smelters. They are mostly located in the Middle East, Mexico, and Russia. These recent sources are now considered to account for approximately 12 percent of man-made emissions of sulfur dioxide. Which means they have a significant impact on the air quality in the said regions.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a contributor to acid rain, as well as being one of the main factors leading to respiratory illnesses. Research has linked sulfur dioxide to bronchoconstriction and increased asthma symptoms, while even aggravating existing heart diseases. It’s one of the six air pollutants monitored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

NASA discovered unreported sources of air pollution thanks to two satellite technology innovations. First, the computer processing that converts raw satellite data from the Dutch-Finnish Ozone Monitoring Instrument (on board of NASA’s Aura spacecraft) into precise estimations of SO2 has been improved. Because of this, scientists are now able to detect small sulfur dioxide concentrations more accurately. This means oil-related activities and medium-size power plants as well, together with bigger, known sources. The second innovation was the development of a computer program which detects the SO2, which has been dispersed and diluted by winds more precisely.

Along with the 39 unreported sulfur dioxide emissions, NASA’s team of researchers has also located 75 natural sources of SO2.  These sources come primarily from non-erupting volcanoes, which leak the toxic sulfur dioxide throughout the year. Although scientists were already aware of these natural pollution sources, monitoring them wasn’t possible until now. Many volcanoes are located in remote areas. The unique advantage of satellite datasets is spatial coverage.

This new report shows the importance of new and improved satellite data, together with improved analysis technique, which allows researchers to detect small air pollution sources anywhere on the globe.