Special Report: NASA looking at Valley air

Special Report: NASA looking at Valley air

The San Joaquin Valley has some of the most polluted air in the country. A lot of it has to do with geography and weather patterns, but scientists with NASA are trying to learn more.
The San Joaquin Valley has some of the most polluted air in the country. A lot of it has to do with geography and weather patterns, but scientists with NASA are trying to learn more. 

A month-long study is taking place that could shed light on what's polluting our Valley, and how to better predict when the air will be the most unhealthy.

CBS47's Rachel Azevedo traveled to NASA's research center in Palmdale, CA, to show us how scientists are taking to the sky to help us breathe better on land.

It's a dark haze we often see on the Valley floor, visible smog settling in the basin of the San Joaquin Valley. It's a part of life no one enjoys, but certain people are especially sensitive to it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in ten kids in the United States have asthma, but the numbers double to one in five for kids in Fresno and Madera counties and one in four in Kings and Tulare counties.

The air we breathe is some of the worst in the country, which is why NASA scientists are studying it, taking air samples from January to February.

James Crawford is a principal investigator and scientist for DISCOVER-AQ, which stands for "Deriving Information on Surface conditions from Column and Vertically Resolved Observations Relevant to Air Quality." Crawford said, "You have a basin that can hold an air mass over a long period of time. So the air stagnates, you have a shallow layer above the ground, and as you put material into that layer over many days you can build up very high concentrations of particles.

The mission is based in Palmdale and the main too they use in a airplane. The P-3B NASA research aircraft actually flies loops around the Central Valley. It studies our air quality by sucking in the air at different altitudes while in flight. "When you do a spiral, it drops a trail," said Captain Michael Singer, pilot of the aircraft.

Captain Singer flies the Central Valley sky eight hours a day, several times a week. Our cameras captured him doing circles over Central Fresno in mid-January. He says the dirty air is even more visible from above. "As soon as we take off from Palmdale, over the mountains to the San Joaquin Valley, it's like looking down into a soup. It's like looking into a bowl that has smoke in it. It's very evident immediately," said Captain Singer.

Flying in circles, the plane goes lower and lower, taking air samples from different elevations. A team of nearly two dozen people inside the plane, measure the samples for different chemicals. "There are some compounds that show us biomass burning markers," said Markus Mueller.

Mueller is an international student from a college in Austria. While learning about our air quality, he's also getting an education in air sickness. The plane does a series of spirals over six Central Valley cities, three times a day. "During the spirals, especially at the end when they have to change maneuvers, you start to feel it and it's really hard," said Mueller.

While the plane is overhead, students below are monitor other instruments. NASA placed tools on the roof of a lab near First Street and Dakota Avenue in Fresno. 

UC Davis graduate student Caroline Parworth is excited to be working with NASA on the project. "It's an honor to work with them. I met a lot of great people so far. I'm really excited to see what kind of results are going to happen," said Parworth.

Scientists say the results of the study could help diagnose what's polluting the air and where it's coming from.

David Lighthall with the Valley Air District said, "That allows the district to much more accurately forecast air quality on a day to day basis."

The Valley Air District has 36 monitors measuring particulate matter across the Valley. NASA's study is different because it's measuring air quality at different altitudes. The groups are working together to compare data. David Lighthall hopes the project will lead to eliminating some pollution and coming into federal compliance for acceptable levels. "It's going to give us a better handle in terms of where to be more surgical in cleaning up sources. And then at the same time, be able to say, 'look, this was because of a wildfire, you can't fine us'," said Lighthall.

Until our air is cleaned up, residents are paying higher registration fees at the DMV.

Other professionals interested in the study include allergists, like Dr. Praveen Buddiga, who says patients' symptoms get worse on bad air days. "They can feel an early onset of irritation, wheezing, coughing," said Dr. Buddiga.

In mid-February, scientists will move on to study another region of the U.S. The five-year project costs about $30 million and NASA plans to launch a special satellite in 2019. It will be the first of its kind to see air pollution 24 hours a day. "We need to be able to use the space-based vantage, looking back at earth from satellites, in a better way to help improve situation on earth," said James Crawford.

Click the related link to learn more about the DISCOVER-AQ project on the NASA website.

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