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Air pollution project harnesses the power of backyard science enthusiasts


A handful of Fort Collins citizens are collecting cutting-edge scientific data from their backyards that may soon help NASA create maps of global air pollution. The volunteers are part of a network of citizen scientists for a Colorado State University-led project called CEAMS: Citizen-Enabled Aerosol Measurements for Satellites. The goal of CEAMS is to improve understanding of local through dispersed, ground-based measurements. Data on this scale could eventually help NASA satellites provide higher-resolution air quality data than is possible today.

NASA is interested in solving global problems,” said CEAMS leader John Volckens, CSU Energy Institute researcher and professor of mechanical engineering. “Most governments can’t afford to monitor at all.” Yet air pollution is a leading cause of death and disease on the planet – responsible for more deaths worldwide than HIV and malaria combined.

NASA uses a combination of satellite imaging and computer algorithms to model air pollution, but models can only say so much about details of ground-level air quality. That’s where the CSU team comes in. “If we want to develop better algorithms to make the air-quality maps from satellite images more representative, we need more data on the ground,” Volckens said. “This project is designed to develop those datasets.

The CEAMS sensors take two primary types of measurements. One is aerosol optical depth, or AOD, which is related to the amount of particulate matter present in a vertical column of air from Earth to space. The other is ground-level PM 2.5, which is of most concern for human health. “These two measures, taken together, are valuable not just to NASA but to anyone interested in local air quality,” says Eric Wendt, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who helped design the sensor.

The CEAMS website contains narrated videos providing step-by-step instructions on how to set up the monitors and collect data. Team member Casey Quinn, a graduate student in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, created a smartphone application through which the citizen scientists upload their data directly to the CEAMS team.

Volunteers have been asked to take a sample every two days for about two weeks, said Bonne Ford, a research scientist in atmospheric science and project manager of CEAMS. The users must set up the sensors in direct sunlight, or the measurements won’t be accurate. They need to learn how to change out a filter, and how to use the app to upload data.

The ongoing pilot phase of CEAMS is supported by a $160,000 NASA grant. If successful, CEAMS may be eligible for a second round of funding, at which time they will deploy in several cities including Denver and Los Angeles. The pilot project also received a Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade grant, which provided critical support for early CEAMS sensor prototypes.

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