KALAMAZOO — Western Michigan University is one of 13 research universities from around the nation tapped to conduct a multiyear $4.3 million research effort aimed at determining the impact of organic aerosol materials on climate and air quality.

The 13 grants announced June 5 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be pursued in conjunction with other efforts funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and with additional support from the Southern Co. and Electric Power Research Institute.

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For WMU, the grant amount is $387,483 to be used through late 2014 for research focused on the southeastern United States to investigate the regional climate implications of organic aerosol formation. The goal is to better understand how atmospheric gases interact with and affect the production of aerosols — tiny particles that form and are suspended in the atmosphere and, in large quantities, are visible as haze. Aerosols impact climate because they affect the amount of radiation from the sun that reaches the earth.

The WMU segment of the research is being led by Steven Bertman, WMU professor of chemistry. He is the principal investigator on the project involving a team of researchers and students from WMU and collaborators at Oakland and Purdue universities and West Chester University of Pennsylvania. The team has been in the field since late May, conducting a set of measurements of ambient concentrations of a wide array of atmospheric volatile organic compounds. Their work is part of an umbrella effort known as the Southern Oxidant & Aerosol Study — SOAS.

“This is an unprecedented study in terms of scope,” Bertman said from his field location near Centreville, Ala. “I’ve been involved in a lot of atmospheric field research, but never anything of this magnitude. Right now there are two large aircraft flying out of Tennessee collecting samples, two smaller research aircraft, 60-foot research towers from which data is being collected and several ground sites where measurements are being taken.”

Bertman said the Alabama site was selected because it is in an area of the country in which current methods of controlling smog have not worked well, despite their success in other regions. The site is between two national forests and, because of population and building levels in the region, Bertman calls it “an urban forest.” He likens the research to trying to get a photograph of what is happening in the atmosphere.

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“How these particles form is very complex. We’re just now beginning to understand all the elements,” he said. “We have dozens of different instruments in the air, on towers and on the ground, each capable of capturing a few pixels–a portion–of the overall picture.”

Research data from all the teams at work on the project are being loaded onto a common website so the data can be seen by all of the scientists involved. That data will be examined in detail long after the teams leave the field in late July, Bertman said.

Ultimately results of the work are expected to help the federal government improve its air quality management systems and climate change models as well as continue to protect both people’s health and the environment.

In addition to Bertman’s WMU-based team, the other 12 EPA-funded teams are led by researchers from:
• Carnegie Mellon University
• University of Wisconsin, Madison
• State University of New York, Stony Brook
• University of California, San Diego
• Georgia Institute of Technology
• Research Triangle Institute in Durham, N.C.
• Rutgers University
• Reed College
• University of California, Irvine
• University of Iowa
• Washington University, St. Louis
• University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Bertman said the southeastern United State is the worldwide focal point this summer for such atmospheric research. In addition to the EPA-funded projects, there are teams in the area funded by the NSF and NOAA, by private entities and some European organizations.

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“This is where the most sophisticated scientific equipment has been gathered this year,” he said.