OIL DISASTER PAVES WAY FOR IMPROVED MODELS OF EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE

I was recently selected as a potential candidate for a science writing internship this summer with EARTH Magazine. In order to get an idea of my writing abilities, I was given a writing assignment to produce a story from a report that was recently published in Science Magazine. Below is the story I submitted to them with two added photos I collected from google images.

OIL DISASTER PAVES WAY FOR IMPROVED MODELS OF EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE

Recent research suggests a new break-through in understanding atmospheric particles involved in climate change and air quality.

Measurements taken from the air surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 has provided scientists with new information on the origins of atmospheric particles known as secondary organic aerosols (SOAs), which play a vital role in climate change and air quality.

Emission from combustion of manmade machines (anthropogenic emission) produces SOA in atmosphere

Pollutants emitted from such devices as smokestacks and tailpipes do not maintain their chemical composition once they’ve been released into the atmosphere. The initial pollutants, known as primary organic aerosols, combine with other material in the atmosphere to produce SOAs.

SOA particles measure tens of micrometers in size, roughly the width of the average human hair. Depending on their chemical structure, these particles will either absorb incoming sunlight or reflect it back into the atmosphere. Their ability to manipulate sunlight makes them a primary accomplice in climate change and an important component to consider in atmospheric models.

For years, scientists have known that SOAs are an important component of earth’s climate changes and air quality. But, understanding exactly how SOAs are created in the atmosphere is still a subject of ongoing research.

On June 8 and June 10, 2010 a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) WP-3D research aircraft flew over a region of the Gulf of Mexico where oil from the Deepwater Horizon accident had risen to the water’s surface from a depth of approximately 1,500 meters. The aircraft measured the chemical composition of the air surrounding the surfaced oil.

From the data, scientists identified a large column in the atmosphere composed of high concentrations of SOAs. This column, or plume, was discovered downwind of the main site where the oil had surfaced. The location of the plume holds important implications for how the SOAs were formed.

Gulf of Mexico after Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010

“One of the interesting findings is that the oil evidently surfaced in one small area only,” explained Dr. Joost de Gouw of the Chemical Sciences Division for NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. De Gouw is one of the primary authors of a report recently published in Science Magazine’s March 11 edition of this year, discussing the importance behind the SOA plume.

“Many groups have studied SOA formation from volatile organic compounds, and in most models they are the most efficient precursors of SOAs,” de Gouw stated, “However, these observations provide direct and compelling evidence for the importance of formation of SOAs from less volatile organic compounds,” he continued.

When the oil reached the water’s surface, it began to evaporate into the air. But, some of the material became a gas more quickly than other material. The less volatile particles evaporated over a time scale of ten to one hundred hours, while the more volatile particles evaporated within ten hours of when the oil surfaced.

Using the data taken on June 10, de Gouw and colleagues were able to construct a model indicating that the SOA plume could not have been created from more volatile gas particles. “These compounds surfaced in the same relatively small area, but because they evaporated on different time scales, they spread out over different areas of the Gulf before being released to the atmosphere,” stated de Gouw.

Since the SOA plume was further downwind from the freshly surfaced oil, it is only possible that the plume was created from mixing organic aerosols in the atmosphere with the more dispersed, less volatile particles, de Gouw concluded.

“This finding leaves us with some rather large challenges,” says Dr. Hugh Coe of the University of Rochester in England. Coe wrote the science perspective article to de Gouw’s report, which also appeared in Science Magazine’s March 11, 2011 edition.

“Most of the time volatile and less volatile organic compounds are released simultaneously, which makes it hard to measure either individually,” explains Coe. “This discovery has some major implications for the way one develops air quality understanding. It potentially changes the way we develop policy,” he concluded.

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2 thoughts on “OIL DISASTER PAVES WAY FOR IMPROVED MODELS OF EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE

    • Actually, I did not get the internship. I ended up being the second choice and their first choice accepted. But, that is ok because they want to publish my story in their magazine, which is certainly a plus. How is your quarter going?

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