Thunderstorms Affect Air Pollution

Scientists study how thunderstorms interact with pollutants in the atmosphere.
Karin Heineman, ISTV Executive Producer

(Inside Science TV) -- Thunder…lightning…heavy rain…It’s usual summertime weather.  Atmospheric scientists looked at what happens to the air when big storms roll through in a study called the Deep Convective Clouds and Chemistry Experiment. 

“So it looked at how pollutants down near the surface…were moved around by the thunderstorms, ” said Mary Barth, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Co.

When thunderstorms form, they draw in pollution and chemicals – taking most of it many miles into the upper atmosphere – scientists believe these pollutants are forming an upper-atmosphere ozone – a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change by trapping the sun’s energy.

Barth said researchers want to ultimately learn how the thunderstorms may be affecting the concentration of ozone—a significant factor in air pollution.

Using research aircraft, radar and lightning detection equipment, scientists fly through air entering the storm down low and exiting the storm up high to collect information during a storm.  Then fly through the same air mass the next day, using its unique chemical signature that it left behind, to see how the air changed.

“Some of the chemicals are mostly getting transported to through the thunderstorms rather getting rained out,” said Barth.  

Data from the project could be used to forecast future air pollution levels or what Earth’s climate could look like 30 or 50 years from now.  

Author Bio & Story Archive

Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV.