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News & Events - 2011


Insights from Oil Spill Air Pollution Study Have Applications Beyond Gulf

11 March 2011
photo of oil slick as seen from aircraft

Photo: Dan Lack, NOAA / CIRES

The oil slick, seen from the window of the Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft. Best known as one of NOAA's "hurricane hunters," the plane was outfitted with chemistry instruments for a mission in California during the spring of 2010. NOAA diverted it to the Gulf for several days in June, as part of a multi-agency effort to asses the atmospheric consequences of the spill.

map of flights over Gulf

Map: Ken Aikin, NOAA / CIRES

P-3 flights over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico during June 2010.

During a special airborne mission to study the air-quality impacts of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill last June, NOAA researchers from the Chemical Sciences Division and their colleagues discovered an important new mechanism by which air pollution particles form. Although predicted four years ago, this discovery now confirms the importance of this pollution mechanism and could change the way urban air quality is understood and predicted.

The NOAA-led team showed that although the lightest compounds in the oil evaporated within hours, it was the heavier compounds, which took longer to evaporate, that contributed most to the formation of air pollution particles downwind. Because those compounds are also emitted by vehicles and other combustion sources, the discovery is important for understanding air quality in general, not only near oil spills.

"We were able to confirm a theory that a major portion of particulate air pollution is formed from chemicals that few are measuring, and which we once assumed were not abundant enough to cause harm," said Joost de Gouw, lead author of a new paper on the finding, published in the March 11 edition of Science.

Joost De Gouw is an atmospheric scientist in CSD and a Fellow at CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

NOAA sent a research aircraft to the Gulf region in June to help other agencies assess pollutant levels in the air (published Gulf data from June 2010 PDF file). The Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft, best known as one of NOAA's "hurricane hunters," was in California for an air quality and climate science mission called CalNex 2010. When diverted to the Gulf, the P-3 was already loaded with instruments designed to measure many types of air pollution particles – including "organic aerosol" – and the chemicals from which they are formed in air.

Organic aerosol, or OA, makes up about half of the air pollution particles in polluted U.S. cities. Air pollution particles can damage people's lung and heart function, and they also affect climate, with some aerosol, including OA, partially offsetting the warming from greenhouse gases by reflecting incoming sunlight or changing cloud properties, and other aerosol amplifying warming by increasing the amount of sunlight absorbed in the atmosphere.

De Gouw said he and his colleagues knew where to expect OA particles downwind from the oil spill based on conventional understanding: OA should form when the most lightweight, or "volatile," components of surface oil evaporate, undergo chemical reactions, and condense onto existing airborne particles.

Twenty to 30 percent of the surface oil fell into this volatile category, evaporating into the atmosphere within hours, according to the new analysis. That gave it little time to spread out, so emissions came from the area immediately surrounding the spill. A steady wind – such as the one blowing during a June 10, 2010 research flight – drew those emissions into a thin, linear streak of pollution in which organic aerosol was expected to form.

"But that's not what we saw," de Gouw said. "We saw this very broad plume of organic aerosol instead." OA levels in that plume were similar to levels found in U.S. urban air.

So de Gouw and his colleagues set about trying to figure out what else might have contributed to the pollution particles. In 2007, other atmospheric scientists had proposed that heavier or "less volatile" components could theoretically help to create OA, but it had proven to be near impossible to study this process in the real world.

"The problem is that the heavier and lighter species are emitted at the same time from the same sources, so we could not study them separately in the atmosphere until Deepwater Horizon," de Gouw said.

Heavier components of oil take longer to evaporate, so they had more time to spread on the surface farther from the spill source than their lightweight siblings. When de Gouw and his colleagues ran a series of models showing how spilled oil spread across the Gulf, and how long it should take for various heavy, medium, and light fractions to evaporate, the conclusion was clear. The heavier, less-volatile compounds from the oil – that were not actually measured by all the sophisticated instruments onboard the aircraft – were the culprit.

These heavier compounds are not measured in most air quality monitoring programs, which were designed to capture the conventional contributors to poor air quality. The new findings may also help understand why there is more organic aerosol in the polluted atmosphere than scientists can explain.

photo of aircraft in flight

Photo: NOAA

NOAA WP-3D Orion aircraft in flight.

"This chemistry could be a very important source of aerosol in the United States and elsewhere," de Gouw said. "What we learned from this study will actually help us to improve air quality understanding and prediction."

A podcast on this study featuring de Gouw is available through CIRES. Listen online to a conversation with study lead author and CIRES researcher Joost de Gouw (6:30): Podcast: CIRES Press Release

The WP-3D Orion is part of NOAA's fleet of highly specialized research aircraft operated, managed and maintained by the NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. The aircraft is piloted by officers of the NOAA Corps – one of the seven uniformed services of the United States – and based at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center, located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.


Co-authors of the new paper, "Organic Aerosol Formation Downwind from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill," include Ann Middlebrook1, Carsten Warneke1,2, Ravan Ahmadov1,2, Elliot Atlas3, Roya Bahreini1,2, Donald Blake4, Charles Brock1, Jerome Brioude1,2, David Fahey1, Fred Fehsenfeld1,2, John Holloway1,2, Matthiew Le Henaff3, Richard Lueb5, Stuart McKeen1,2, James Meagher1, Daniel Murphy1, Claire Paris3, David Parrish1, Anne Perring1,2, Ilana Pollack1,2, A.R. Ravishankara1, Allen Robinson6, Thomas Ryerson1, Joshua Schwarz1,2, J. Ryan Spackman1,2, Ashwanth Srinivasan3, and Laurel Watts1,2.

1 NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, Chemical Sciences Division, Boulder, CO
2 Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO
3 University of Miami, Miami, FL
4 University of California, Irvine, CA
5 National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO
6 Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA

More information:

NOAA Releases Data Report on Air Quality Measurements Near the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill Area 21 July 2010

YouTube (CIRES channel): Gulf Oil Spill with Joost de Gouw

CIRES Press Release: Insights from Oil Spill Air Pollution Study have Applications Beyond the Gulf

NOAA Press Release: Insights from Oil Spill Air Pollution Study Have Applications Beyond Gulf