Over the Volcano: Michigan Tech researchers search for air pollution in the Azores

August 23, 2001

If you want to measure air pollution drifting across the North Atlantic, there's just one place on earth to do it. Thus, it was on top of a volcano, Pico mountain in the Azores, that Dr. Richard Honrath and his research team lowered a laboratory the size of an ice-fishing shanty, with considerable assistance from a Portuguese Air Force helicopter crew, on July 2.

Honrath, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and his research team assembled the lab and its instrumentation at Michigan Technological University before trucking it to Milwaukee. The U.S. Air National Guard then flew the half-ton structure plus six tons of additional cargo to the Azores in a C130 transport plane, landing at Lajes Air Force Base on the island of Terceira.

As the only islands in the region that are distant from any continents, the misty Azores have long been an important site for scientists studying the pristine atmosphere above the North Atlantic. However, at lower altitudes, up to about 1,500 meters, or 4,900 feet, the ocean tends to scrub the atmosphere clean, so detecting the drift of pollutants is extremely difficult.

At an elevation of 2,225 meters, Pico mountain, located on Pico Island, is the only spot in the Azores where the air is high enough to escape the effects of the ocean environment. In fact, its barren summit often pokes through the clouds that mark the top of this marine boundary layer.

There are some very good reasons scientists hadn't established a station on Pico, however. The nearest road ends 1,000 meters below the summit, and those last 1,000 meters make for a very challenging hike. No utilities are available, and access is restricted for both safety and environmental reasons.

Nevertheless, it is a perfect spot for tracking the drift of emissions across long distances. Researchers also believe a station there could be key to determining how local pollution can become part of the global atmosphere and possibly precipitate global warming.

Some air pollutants have a relatively short shelf life, quickly reacting with other chemicals to form harmless compounds or washing out of the air in a local rain. Others travel far from their mother smokestack or tailpipe, and these are the pollutants that attract Honrath's interest.

In the Azores, prevailing winds carry pollution from eastern North America across the ocean, while pollution from western Europe is sometimes blown south and east. The station atop Pico will detect the frequency and intensity of pollution flows over the region, which will allow researchers to determine the amount of pollutants that hitchhike into the global atmosphere.

"We are particularly interested in ozone," Honrath said. A powerful shield against UV light in the stratosphere, in the lower atmosphere ozone is the primary ingredient in smog, causing serious respiratory problems in some people. It's also a major greenhouse gas and can inhibit plant growth.

"Plus, it's a key player in atmospheric chemistry," Honrath said. "Ozone controls the life of other chemicals. It's highly reactive, and it actually breaks down other pollutants."

In addition, the PICO-NARE (stands for Pico International atmospheric Chemistry Observatory-North Atlantic Regional Experiment) station is tracking black carbon dust and carbon monoxide, and next year the researchers will begin testing for nitrogen oxides.

The lab is fully automated, and readings are being downloaded through a cellular Internet connection. It's a good thing, too, since conditions at Pico do not lend themselves to frequent visits.

The morning the Portuguese helicopter crew began airlifting the lab and all its component parts up to Pico's summit, "the weather was terrible: cold, blowing clouds, we couldn't see a thing," Honrath recalls. However, by the end of the day, the team had anchored the building and installed the equipment. The second day, they hooked it up to a generator over one-and-a-half miles down the mountain.

In addition to the air force, the local volunteer fire department helped researchers get the equipment up the mountain. "It turned out be be a really nice team effort," Honrath noted.

The PICO-NARE researchers have permission from the Portuguese government to continue their experiments for two years at the Azores' highest point.
For more information, including graphics, visit http://www.cee.mtu.edu/~reh/pico or contact Honrath at reh@mtu.edu or 906-487-3202.

Michigan Technological University

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