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NOAA Awards $4.35 Million to UNH for Expansion of Air Quality Research Program
DURHAM, N.H. -- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has awarded $4.35 million in federal funding to the University of New Hampshire to improve and expand the Atmospheric Investigation, Regional Monitoring, Analysis and Prediction Program, or AIRMAP. The funds, which represent the largest installment to date for the program, were secured by New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, Chairman of the Senate Appropriation Subcommittee that oversees funding for NOAA and the Department of Commerce.

The primary mission of AIRMAP is to develop a detailed understanding of climate variability and the source of persistent air pollutants in the New England region. Long term, the project will help make predicting air quality part of daily weather forecasting technologies. AIRMAP runs four air-monitoring sites around the state. The latest infusion of funds to AIRMAP, which has been gathering and analyzing data for over two years, will provide the resources to expand the sites and take the state-of-the-art research to a higher level.

Specifically, the funds will provide AIRMAP with the supercomputing abilities needed to run extremely complex atmospheric forecasting models and begin measuring airborne mercury. Airborne mercury can eventually find its way into ecosystems and their inhabitants in a solid, poisonous form.

"You don?t typically get measurements for n toxin like mercury at an air monitoring station," says AIRMAP?s chief scientist Robert Talbot of UNH?s Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS). More important, says Talbot, because AIRMAP collects and analyzes some 100 gases and aerosols at its Durham, N.H. facility, the scientists will be able to study the mercury levels in the context of all this additional data. "We?ll know if we?re getting air from the Midwest or from the Northeast Corridor or from off the ocean, and we?ll be able to identify where the highest loadings of mercury are coming from and what the sources might be." The data will be put together by a collective group of researchers at UNH, Plymouth State University, and the Mount Washington Observatory.

Although mercury has been known to be a dangerous environmental contaminant and public health threat for decades, much of the funding aimed at improving air quality has gone to eliminating the pollutants that cause acid rain, and airborne mercury has taken a back seat in research efforts. "It was a hot topic in the 1970s," Talbot says adding, "The problem didn?t go away but the funding did."

Gregg, upon announcing the new funds, said, "Due to the rising concern of the presence of mercury in fish and seafood, the focus of this work on mercury in the air and rainfall is especially important. The tremendous work being done by researchers at UNH, Plymouth State University and at the Mount Washington Observatory will allow scientists to more accurately identify the source of those pollutants, a critical step in determining how best to make our air cleaner in the future."

The AIRMAP program has grown to the point where a new supercomputing facility is needed to simulate how air pollutants behave and travel from region to region and impact New England's air quality and climate. Actually a cluster of a hundred PCs, the new supercomputer will be able to crunch the numbers needed to run the complex, three-dimensional models of atmospheric dynamics and chemistry. Says Talbot, "The calculations for atmospheric fluid dynamics are probably the most intense calculations you can do." Once the computers run all the chemical and meteorological data, scientists can compare their own real-world observations with what the models derive, and tweak the models accordingly. Eventually, the models will be robust and accurate enough to make reasonably accurate predictions of air quality.

In addition to the mercury monitoring and the supercomputing, the recent funds will provide for the development of a new monitoring station at Appledore Island on the Isles of Shoals off the N.H. coast, a carbon monoxide measurement system on Pack Monadnock in Peterborough, as well as expansion of existing AIRMAP stations in Durham, Castle Springs in Moultonborough, and on the summit of Mount Washington.

David Sims
Science Writer
Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space
(603) 862-5369