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February 27, 2008

Weather lab detects Asian air pollutants in the Rockies

Posted: 11:09 AM ET

We were in Steamboat Springs, CO, for a weather conference recently.  Climatologists and meteorologists from around the country engaged in lively debate and discussion on topics ranging from global warming to the latest forecasting technology. 

The week was quite illuminating, especially if you like heady science stuff.  We also got in a little skiing, which was amazing with 22 inches of fresh powder.   

I was there with CNN weather anchor Rob Marciano, who had the opportunity to visit the Storm Peak Laboratory  high atop Mt. Werner.  I produced a news piece about it for CNN’s American Morning, which ran today.   

At elevation 10,500 feet, the only ways to reach the lab are to ski, snowmobile, or climb.  On a clear day you are able to see for miles.  Rob skied up there when it was about 9 degrees and blowing snow, and he was a little out of breath in the thin air. 

He interviewed the two researchers who run the lab: Dr. Anna Gannet Hallar and her colleague Ian McCubbin.  What they had to say was fascinating. Did you know they can detect pollution from Asia in the middle of the Colorado Rockies?  Startling!  Scary! 

Dr. Hallar explained that large dust storms in Asia loft air and collect industrial plumes from coal-fired power plants in China, India and other countries.  You can even see these storms – and pollution clouds – in satellite imageryThe industrial plumes are sucked into weather systems and travel across the Pacific to the United States. 

Storm Peak Lab is so high that it’s actually “in-cloud” about 25-30% of the time.  Its sophisticated probes detect and analyze particulate matter in the clouds.  The size, shape and chemistry of cloud particles yield clues about the origin of particular pollutants.   

So how do they know it’s pollution from Asia?  They are finding mercury.  McCubbin told us that coal in Asia is known to have high mercury content, and that he was surprised that the toxin was still present in the air thousands of miles from the source. 

Now, of course it’s not a whole lot of mercury, but it is evidence of just how far this anthropogenic – or manmade – pollution can travel.  Nothing makes air dirtier than burning coal, and coal-fired plants have been linked to global warming, acid rain, and even asthma. 

And just think, once mercury is in the clouds, precipitation brings it right back down to earth where it enters our streams, lakes, rivers, oceans and into the fish we eat.     

- Alex Walker, Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Uncategorized

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