Right now, a handful of motivated Fort Collins citizens are doing something a little out of the ordinary. They’re collecting cutting-edge scientific data from their backyards that may soon help NASA create maps of global air pollution.
The volunteers are part of a network of citizen scientists for a Colorado State University-led project called CEAMS: Citizen-Enabled Aerosol Measurements for Satellites.
The goal of CEAMS is to improve understanding of local air quality through dispersed, ground-based measurements. Data on this scale could eventually help NASA satellites provide higher-resolution air quality data than is possible today.
“NASA is interested in solving global problems,” said CEAMS leader John Volckens, CSU Energy Institute researcher and professor of mechanical engineering. “Most governments can’t afford to monitor air pollution at all.” Yet air pollution is a leading cause of death and disease on the planet – responsible for more deaths worldwide than HIV and malaria combined.
Air pollution monitoring is a tricky and expensive business, according to Volckens. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency maintains about 1,000 active air samplers for fine particulate matter air pollution across the country – about one for every three counties. But pollution from vehicles, power plants, wildfires and a host of other sources varies at much finer spatial scales than the county level.
NASA uses a combination of satellite imaging and computer algorithms to model air pollution, but models can only say so much about details of ground-level air quality. That’s where the CSU team comes in.
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