Levels of coal produced sulfur dioxide, a major air pollutant, are falling across eastern USA according to a special NASA satellite tasked with measuring the quality of the Earth's atmosphere.
NASA's Earth Science Projects Division have reported, via a press release, that there have been "major reductions in the levels of a key air pollutant generated by coal power plants in the eastern United States". The NASA report summarises a scientific paper published in 'Geophysical Research Letters'.
The decline in this key air pollutant was detected by NASA's Aura satellite, which is equipped with a special Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI). The OMI, a Dutch and Finnish built instrument, is designed to distinguish between aerosol types, such as smoke, dust, and sulfates, and measures cloud pressure and coverage. Data was gathered over several years in order to verify and to trend the findings.
The Aura satellite was launched in 2004 (from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California) and it carries special instrumentation designed to monitor the Earth's atmospheric environment, with a particular focus on charting climate change. The name of the satellite - Latin for breeze - is quite apt considering the mission
The OMI instrument located on Aura is able to detect sulfur dioxide (SO2). Sulfur dioxide is an important pollutant and is the main chemical in 'acid rain'. Sulfur dioxide, due to the formation of particulates in the air, can also cause significant health risks (respiratory and cardiovascular disease).
According to Medical Daily the findings from the Aura satellite indicate that levels of sulfur dioxide pollution in the US have dropped by about 75 percent since the 1980s.
This report is important on two counts. First, it demonstrates that changes to environmental policy are being shown to be effective in that levels of potentially harmful pollutants from coal power are being cut. This means that some of the work and policy pronouncements from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), notably the July 6, 2011 Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR),. have been effective. Bryan Bloomer, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist was quoted as saying: "This is a huge success story for the EPA and the Clean Air Interstate Rule".
Secondly, it demonstrates that satellites, using advanced air detection systems, can more accurately detect fine changes to the balance of chemicals than surface based technologies.
The Aura satellite will remain in orbit and will continue to gather global data for several more years, providing valuable information about the status of the Earth's atmosphere.