By Rolando Garcia
Natural Sciences and Mathematics
One of the nation’s most prominent atmospheric scientists is now spearheading the University of Houston’s burgeoning research efforts in air quality and climate change.
In January Robert Talbot, professor of atmospheric science, became the new director of UH’s Institute for Multidimensional Air Quality Studies, which models, forecasts and continuously monitors Houston’s air quality.
During more than two decades at the University of New Hampshire, Talbot built an air pollution research group that was among the largest and most sophisticated of its kind, attracting more than $10 million annually in federal funding. Most recently, he helped set up a ground-breaking air monitoring station in China that could yield the most advanced studies to-date of air pollution in Chinese cities.
With Houston perennially ranked second (behind Los Angeles) among U.S. cities with the most polluted air, air quality studies in the region pose special challenges and opportunities, Talbot said, and it is crucial that UH establish a strong presence in atmospheric science.
“Robert Talbot is not only one of the most respected atmospheric scientists in the field, he has a proven record of building strong research programs,” said John Casey, chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “Professor Talbot has the expertise and experience to make UH a leader in air quality and climate change studies.”
The effort has already come a long way since the department hired its first atmospheric scientist in 2000. 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.
These gauges measure fluctuating levels of more than 80 compounds that contribute to air pollution. These studies have provided the first reliable measurements of mercury in Houston’s air, and have also pinpointed the region’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.
IMAQS also generates daily ozone forecasts to aid Houston residents with breathing disabilities plan their outside activities. These forecasts run every evening on high performance computers and the results are posted daily at the institute’s Web site.
In addition to the air quality studies, the department now offers master’s and doctorate degrees in atmospheric science. And undergraduates majoring in environmental science – a bachelor’s degree offered by the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics – can choose an atmospheric science track.
Three years ago, the department even changed its name from the Department of Geoscience to reflect this new, broader mission as it expands beyond its traditional strengths in geology and geophysics.
There are currently four atmospheric scientists on faculty and Talbot hopes to add another two in the near future. His goal is to build the kind of large, regional program he established at New Hampshire, where his studies of New England’s air quality were among the most advanced and comprehensive ever undertaken. Integrating satellite data and air measurements collected at several stations, Talbot’s team studied how New England was affected by air pollution generated in the Ohio River valley that drifted northeast before moving out into the Atlantic.
This phenomenon made New England the “tailpipe of the U.S.” Talbot said. Air pollution moves globally, Talbot added, with pollution from Asia likely affecting air quality on the West Coast, for example. However, despite the rapid industrialization of China and the almost choking air pollution in its major cities, reliable air quality data is scarce, Talbot said.
So in January, he teamed up with scientists at Nanjing University to establish a state-of-the-art air monitoring station atop a 25-story dormitory on the Nanjing campus. Nanjing is a major industrial city of more than 7 million residents and the air is filled with a thick, almost permanent haze of air pollution, Talbot said. On a typical day visibility is perhaps half a kilometer. Over the next two years the monitoring station in Nanjing will measure the presence of several pollutants in the city’s air, including mercury and black carbon.