TRACER project in Houston helps understand how air quality impacts thunderstorms

Earlier this year we introduced you to TRACER, a research project taking place here in southeast Texas. The purpose of the project is to better understand the role that air quality plays in how thunderstorms develop.

TRACER looks at the intersection between climate, weather, and pollution to help build a better, cleaner future moving forward.

A study of this scope and magnitude is something Houston has not seen in years. Hundreds of scientists from all over the world have come here to collaborate on this research and they have been deploying everything from trucks, boats, drones, weather balloons - you name it.

"This is going to allow us to evolve the way we think about how ozone formation occurs in the Houston area, and how that ozone then is transported around," said James Flynn, an Associate Professor at the University of Houston about the work being done through the TRACER project.

Travis Griggs, a Ph.D. student at UH works as a Research Assistant to collect data. "The main thing is, we don’t have monitors over water and so there’s some uncertainty of what’s going on over water, especially with respect to air quality," he says.

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"When we go to forecast ozone we have computer models that put high ozone over water and so we just don’t know exactly how accurate those are," Griggs adds.

A lot of complex interactions occur where the land meets the sea, so a better understanding of what’s happening in real-time can help improve models and forecasting.

But, other implications extend far beyond weather.

Subin Yoon is a post-doctoral fellow working under Flynn and manages instruments and the mobile air quality laboratory.

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"Definitely one of the first components is like, public health," says Yoon. "We’re being exposed to a lot of these toxins, we’re being exposed to a lot of ozone and so these are bad and contribute to poor health," she adds

The team's mobile air quality laboratory can launch weather balloons, collect air samples, and measure everything from incoming solar radiation to cloud heights.

Flynn says, "Similar to how satellites will measure air quality from space looking downward, these are basically using the same techniques from the surface looking upwards."

This allows for a good comparison between satellites and ground observations. Scans occur vertically and horizontally to separate emission types.

"Some of these things are emissions from nature, others come from industrial processes, or vehicles, power plants," Flynn adds.

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Nevertheless, they all interact and get transported by our weather patterns. This is a game changer, according to Flynn, because now they go to where that weather is happening instead of waiting for the weather to occur.

"What we’re being able to do now is go out and see what’s happening in places we’ve never really been able to look at before," Flynn says. "The work we’re doing on the boats is really new."

Areas that used to not have measurements, have them now, and improving the models with this new information, will improve what the state takes to the Environmental Protection Agency for compliancy.

"What we hope to do is provide the most accurate, scientifically valid information as possible so that the decision-makers who might be working on new policies can make sure that the decisions they’re making is well rooted in science," Flynn explains.

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The more precise the information, the more focused regulations can be on tackling maximizing air quality improvements while also minimizing economic impacts. 

"We’re really working to leverage all the measurements that are being made over here at the airport as well as all around the city of Houston, we’re able to utilize their meteorological measurements and match that up with our chemical measurements. And so that’s going to make a really, really powerful dataset that we’re going to be analyzing for a very long time," Flynn said.

The data collection process is ultimately coming to a close, but the work is just beginning with months and months of measurements for years, even decades, to come.

You can check out a behind-the-scenes in-depth tour of the truck and all the instruments on our website.