Air Quality Research along Colorado's Front Range

NOx + VOCs + light → O3 Ozone (O3), an invisible gas, can damage people's lungs as well as crops and other plants. It is generally a summertime pollutant, cooked up (by sunlight) from chemical ingredients emitted into the air: oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Those ingredients or "precursors" come from diverse sources: cars and other vehicles, power plants, agriculture, crops and other plants, oil and gas development, and other industrial activities. This summer's air quality work will investigate how those sources contribute to ozone pollution on the Colorado Front Range. (Photo credit: NREL)
July 15, 2014

Every summer along Colorado’s Front Range, ozone pollution periodically spikes to unhealthy levels, despite federal and state efforts to control the lung-damaging chemical. Cars are running cleaner, and power plants are emitting fewer pollutants, so why does ozone still regularly soar above health-based limits?

This July and August, nearly 200 scientists from several national and regional agencies will focus sophisticated instruments on the Front Range atmosphere, seeking to better understand the sources of emissions and the chemistry that contribute to regional air-quality challenges. Ultimately, the goal is to share discoveries with decision makers seeking to clear the air.

When ozone levels spike, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) experts recommend that people, especially those in sensitive groups—children, the elderly, and anyone with pre-existing respiratory conditions—limit time outdoors. Seven years ago, Colorado’s Front Range fell out of compliance with federal regulations designed to protect people’s health.

The NSF sponsored experiment FRAPPÉ through NCAR, and the NASA sponsored DISCOVER-AQ mission take place in Summer 2014. Three aircraft, including the NASA P-3 and King Air and the NSF / NCAR C-130, will make detailed atmospheric measurements, supported by other instruments on the ground. CIRES and NOAA scientists from the Earth System Research Laboratory are contributing primarily with ground-, tower-, vehicle-, and balloon-based instruments. More details can be found at:

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