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  • Caltech is base for $20 million air quality study - the state's most comprehensive ever

    PASADENA - At a ground station at Caltech, funnels at the top of some scaffolding suck up air like a vacuum.

    Minute particles in the air register on computers inside a row of trailers that will remain on an empty lot at Caltech until mid-June.

    Inside one of them, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Bill Kuster points to a graph showing how carbon monoxide inches up in the morning.

    "We see rush hours and stuff like that," Kuster said, pointing to a spot in the graph when a construction truck working on campus drives past.

    Scientists from all over the country are flocking to California this month to conduct the largest study ever on the state's air quality.

    To do it, they've launched a fleet of planes and a ship and have built two temporary measuring stations - one at Caltech and the other in the Central Valley. Caltech professor John Seinfeld called the project "the most comprehensive experiment aimed at understanding Los Angeles air quality ever conducted."

    The study will measure greenhouse gases like ozone and methane and other microscopic pollutants in the air.

    The federal government has kicked in $15 million for the statewide project and the state has ponied up $5 million.

    The study will also investigate why Los Angeles' air has been improving so much more quickly than the Central Valley's, said Bart Croes, chief of research for the California Air Resources Board.

    Cities in Los Angeles and Kern Counties still have some of the worst air pollution in the nation, even though they have improved dramatically since the 1960s, according to Croes.

    Los Angeles had some of the worst levels of ozone pollution ever recorded in the 1960s, but those levels have dropped about 80 percent since. That hasn't been the case across the Grapevine in the Central Valley, where the same statewide controls reduced ozone pollution by only about 50 percent, Croes said.

    Regional air districts are constantly taking rough measurements of air pollution, but the new study will tell researchers exactly where the pollution is coming from - and whether it's even coming from the United States, Croes said.

    To do so, the project is using a wide variety of measuring tools.

    At the top of Millikan Library at Caltech, scientists have been shooting a beam of light at the San Gabriel Mountains to measure what's in the air.

    Flights have been crisscrossing the state and taking measurements of the air from San Diego to Northern California and east into the Central Valley and out to the desert.

    NOAA launched a ship that has been measuring the air along the coast from San Diego up to the Bay Area and into the Sacramento Delta.

    The study's initial results will be published in about a year, Croes said.

    "The instruments can measure the air with a level of detail and accuracy that wasn't possible three decades ago," Seinfeld said.

    Pollution from gasoline has a distinct fingerprint. So does the pollution from fires, fertilizers, soil, animals and factories, officials with the project said.

    If you know where the pollution is coming from, it's easier to figure out how to control it, Seinfeld said.

    "You can find out how much of the pollution in L.A. is the result of ships offshore - that's one aspect. And of course, there's the age-old question of how much is coming from cars, trucks and industry," Seinfeld said.

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