Energy & Environment

Air pollution could be making Houston thunderstorms more intense. Researchers want to find out for sure

Scientists want to know whether tiny specks of soot, dust, smoke and other particles are impacting the severity of thunderstorms in Houston.  

Over the next 14 months, national researchers will be taking measurements to see if air pollution particles are making thunderstorms in the area more intense.

A national team of atmospheric scientists will conduct a year-long study in Houston to see if air pollution is making thunderstorms more severe.

Starting Friday, researchers from the University of Houston, the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven Laboratory and other institutions will start collecting data to analyze whether tiny particles of soot, dust, smoke and other aerosols are impacting the severity of thunderstorms in Houston.

The findings could help make weather forecasts more accurate, both in Houston and other cities.

"We're really meteorology driven this time around," Jimmy Flynn, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Houston, said during a virtual press conference. "We'll be using some of the air quality and chemistry and composition measurements to help us better understand some of those small particles and how they interact with the weather and these cloud systems that generate thunderstorms."

Equipment has been set up at the La Porte airport, as part of a year-long study to see how air pollution is impacting thunderstorms in Houston.

Several scientific studies have suggested that by changing the makeup of cloud and precipitation particles, aerosols can make storms stronger, larger, and with more rainfall, according to Mike Jensen, a meteorologist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

"There's a lot of controversy about this process and a lot of debate in the literature," he said."What we really hope to do with the campaign is resolve this ongoing debate in the scientific literature."

Equipment at the La Porte airport will collect atmospheric and aerosol data over the next 14 months.

To do this, equipment from the DOE's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement facility is being deployed in Houston. Shipping containers housing instruments such as radars have been set up at the La Porte airport to collect information on cloud properties, air particles, precipitation, temperature and humidity, among other data points.

During the year, the team will also launch around 1,500 weather balloons, which can provide measurements from the ground all the way to the top of the atmosphere.

"We’re looking to take some new advanced measurements to be able to better understand these processes with a goal of eventually improving the computer models that are used for determining weather forecasts, air quality conditions and future climate states," said Jensen.

Equipment from the DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility has been used around the world. But the study in Houston is the first time it will be used to take measurements in a large urban area.

The equipment has been used to take measurements around the world, including in the Arctic, but this represents the first time it's being deployed in an urban environment.

The scientists said Houston was chosen for several reasons, including its subtropical climate and its range of both naturally occurring aerosol sources — like sea salt and Saharan dust — as well as man-made sources, such as vehicle and industrial emissions.

"Particularly in the summertime, we experience a great deal of isolated storm clouds," Jensen said. "These storm clouds encounter a variety of natural and human made aerosol sources, so we want to understand the interactions among those."

The most intensive portion of the research will take place next summer during peak storm season, during which scientists from NASA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the National Science Foundation will also be involved.

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