Studying Indy's Air

May 17, 2016
Studying Indy's Air

A team of national and international researchers is in Indianapolis measuring greenhouse emissions in the city.

Dr. Steven C. Wofsy, Abbott Lawrence Rotch professor of atmospheric and environmental science at Harvard University, leads the team consisting of researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and a German university. Six undergraduate students from the University of Indianapolis are also assisting the research team with instrument setup and data analysis.

“The overall goal is to determine the amount of carbon dioxide and methane greenhouse gases being produced in Indianapolis, and to determine the sources of these gases,” says Levi Mielke assistant chemistry professor at UIndy and environmental researcher.

To achieve this determination, the research team has placed five research data collection stations in an X pattern across the city.

Wofsy, who is considered the one of the world’s leading experts on chemical composition in the atmosphere, says the team is on a “snipe hunt.”

“So, we’re looking for the sources of methane that come from the national as system and make it into the atmosphere of Indianapolis,” says Wofsy. “Although it’s not a pollutant by itself, when it enters the global environment it increases the background filtrations of ozone in the environment. When that background air then enters an urban area, it’s primed to start the processes that produce pollutants.”

Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are two of the main pollutants linked to global climate change. Wofsy, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, studies the atmosphere in an effort to understand the factors that affect its chemical composition and to help design programs to reduce undesirable changes.

According to Mielke, researchers from Purdue and Penn State universities have been conducting studies of greenhouse gases in central Indiana for several years. The result of that research has created a bank of data that has caught the attention of researchers from around the world.

“Indianapolis has become kind of a model city to see how much greenhouse gas is produced on a citywide basis,” Mielke says.

Indiana is known for having some of the worst air pollution in the country. The National Resources Defense Council ranked Indiana fourth in the country for having the worst toxic air pollution created by power plants. The Environmental Integrity Project ranked Indiana third in the country for the highest averages of the top eight hazardous air pollutants. Indianapolis is the state’s largest urban city and local government has taken a variety of steps to improve the city’s air quality with entities like the Central Indiana Clean Air Partnership through the city’s Office of Sustainability and initiatives like knozone action days.

“The idea is that we hopefully will be able to identify which regions of the city are actually contributing most to the total methane flux coming from this area,” says Dr. Jonathon Franklin, a Harvard postdoctoral fellow.

The research team is spending two and half weeks in the city. The UIndy students assisting on the project are earning a salary through the university thanks to a grant from the Environmental Defense Fund.

This article originally appeared in NUVO Newsweekly.

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