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Issue 477, 18 February 2002

Iron-stomach scientists test pollution in the sky

Lecturers and students from Leeds will need strong stomachs as they bounce through the clouds on a specially equipped plane to test pollution levels in the atmosphere around West Yorkshire. The plane will be travelling at just 1000ft for much of its work, so will be clearly visible to the public.

Project co-ordinator, environment lecturer Dr Alastair Lewis, said: "We must be the only people at the moment who want this wild weather to continue. One important strand to our research is looking at how quickly pollutants are lifted up in frontal weather systems. Under these conditions pollutants can go from the surface to four or five km high in less than an hour. We have to take measurements through the cloud bands, which won't make for the most comfortable of trips."

Preparing for take-off – Jim McQuaid (above right) and Alastair Lewis (left) beside the plane, and (below), the interior crammed with specialised equipment.

Many of the chemical compounds involved are unstable, so samples will be whisked off to University laboratories as soon as the plane lands, for immediate analysis.

Using West Yorkshire and specifically Leeds as the pollution source, scientists are hoping to improve their understanding of the complex relationship between the chemistry of pollution and the weather, and the results will be relevant not just for the city, but for the whole of the UK.

Co-co-ordinator Dr Jim McQuaid: "It's often hard to predict pollution levels in UK cities, because although emissions generally stay the same, the weather can cause big differences in what gets carried away and what gets trapped. Our findings will help agencies make more accurate predictions."

The research also has an international impact. As weather systems cross the Atlantic, they pick up pollution from the UK. Predictions of pollution levels in mainland Europe are made difficult as background levels there are affected by fluctuations in whatever the UK exports. The results from this research will provide much needed information for overseas agencies.

The project is a collaboration between the German aerospace and space research centre, which supplied the plane, and the universities of Leeds and Lancaster.


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