|By Rolando Garcia
Natural Sciences and Mathematics Communications
The Department of Geosciences is not just studying the planet's surface and what lies beneath. Students and faculty now are exploring the heights of the Earth's atmosphere as well as the depths of the planet's interior.
With new research and degree programs that study climate change and air pollution, the department rapidly is expanding beyond its traditional strengths in geology and geophysics.
To reflect this new, broader mission, the department changed its name earlier this year to the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. And this fall, the department began offering a new master's degree in atmospheric science. The program already has eight students enrolled.
State approval for a Ph.D. in atmospheric science is pending but expected soon, said department chair John Casey. Undergraduate students majoring in environmental science – a bachelor's degree offered by the College of Natural Science and Mathematics – can also choose an atmospheric science track.
These programs will prepare students for a variety of fields, Casey said, including meteorology, atmospheric modeling, atmospheric chemistry and air pollution science and policy.
The department's new venture began in 2000, with the hiring of atmospheric scientist Daewon Byun, to spearhead a new research group focused on air quality and climate change. With Houston perennially ranked second (behind Los Angeles) among U.S. cities with the most polluted air, it was crucial that UH establish a presence in atmospheric science, Casey said.
Byun and faculty members Barry Lefer and Bernhard Rappenglueck, as well as two research scientists, are part of UH's Institute for Multidimensional Air Quality Studies. The institute studies, models, forecasts and continuously monitors Houston's air quality.
Measurement instruments atop Moody Tower, an 18-story dormitory on the UH campus, coupled with four measurement stations throughout the county and data collected from an aircraft and balloon sampling are helping scientists develop a more accurate profile of the region's atmosphere.
The studies have provided the first reliable measurements of mercury in Houston's air. Researchers also have pinpointed the city's refineries and petrochemical plants as the source of much of the formaldehyde in the region's air. Formaldehyde serves as a catalyst in the production of ozone – a harmful pollutant when present in ground-level air.
Byun's group also generates daily ozone forecasts to aid Houston residents with breathing disabilities plan their outside activities. These forecasts are run every evening on high performance computers in the department and results are posted daily at the institute's Web site – http://www.imaqs.uh.edu/ozone_forecast.htm
These air pollution studies are only the beginning of the department's new efforts in atmospheric science. Next year two researchers who study atmospheres of other planets and the dynamic between the Earth's atmosphere and oceans will join the department.
Along with these new initiatives the department continues to improve on its traditional strengths in petroleum geology and geophysics. The first classes in new professional master's programs – one in petroleum geology and another in petroleum geophysics – graduated earlier this year.
The 13-month programs are geared for those working full time in the energy industry by allowing them to take classes on weekends. With worldwide oil production expected to continue rising in the next few decades, programs like these are needed to meet the shortage of geoscientists in the oil industry, Casey said.