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Release: May 1, 2002

Carmichael uses $310,000 NOAA grant to study Asian effect on California air quality

When The New York Times ran an April 14, 2002 story about Asian air pollution so thick that it caused residents of Seoul, South Korea to wear face masks and blotted out the sun, University of Iowa researcher Greg Carmichael wasn't surprised.

"We forecasted that dust storm correctly," says Carmichael, who keeps an eye on dust storms as they form in the Gobi dessert and mix with Asian industrial pollutants before crossing the Pacific Ocean and slamming into California. Armed with a new three-year, $310,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Carmichael, a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering in the UI College of Engineering, is studying how Asian pollution is increasingly affecting air quality in California and the rest of the Western United States.

During April and May, Carmichael and about 15 colleagues are using a NOAA P-3 aircraft based in Monterey, Calif. to measure carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, dust and other pollutants that cross the Pacific in conjunction with maps for forecasting weather and pollution. The maps, created by the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), in collaboration with The Applied Mechanics Institute at Kyushu University in Japan, Argonne National Laboratory and the NOAA Geophysical Fluids Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton, can be viewed on-line at

"Our role is to provide chemical weather forecasts for use in deciding where and when to fly the airplane, which has a variety of instruments on-board to measure the pollutant levels in air masses that have crossed the Pacific," he says. "There is quite a bit of excitement as there have already been several Asian dust storms that have crossed the Pacific this year."

Although Californians aren't being urged to wear facemasks, Asian pollution is a matter of growing concern for Americans, says Carmichael, who has received a total of about $1.3 million to study Asian pollution from NASA, NOAA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). In previous studies, he found that large quantities of Asian industrial emissions, mixed with wind-borne dust rising from the Gobi Desert, were being transported off the coast of East Asia. However, very little is known about the fate of that pollution as it is transported over the Pacific. Computer model studies suggest that Asian emissions may contribute as much as 20 percent to pollution levels currently observed over the Western United States, a figure that may rise as Asian emission levels grow.

Carmichael, who also co-directs CGRER, hopes that his work will lead to improved energy usage and environmental policy. "We are trying to learn more about pollution coming off of the Asian continent to better understand trans-continental pollution, help make accurate pollution forecasts and learn how it contributes to present and future changes in climate. We also want to predict what the effects on California air quality will be in 2020," he says.