NASA scientists take to the skies to measure pollution in S. Korea

David Miller and Alexandra Brosius of Penn State University discuss readings shown on a computer screen during a May 30, 2016, flight that was part of a six-week joint Korea-U.S. air quality field study in South Korea. The plane has been transformed into a flying laboratory so some three dozen scientists can measure the heavy pollution over the peninsula.


By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 3, 2016

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — The cockpit warning blared insistently as the plane spiraled downward to 500 feet above Seoul: “Too low, too low, terrain. Pull up, pull up, pull up.”

The pilots ignored the automated voice despite a nervous glance from a visiting reporter. Their mission was to take the DC-8 as low or as high as the NASA scientists working in the back required.

The flight was part of a six-week joint Korea-U.S. air-quality field study — known as KORUS-AQ — which officially kicked off on April 29. The timing coincided with the so-called yellow dust season that sees fine particulate matter swept into the air from neighboring China’s Gobi Desert.

Koreans check daily dust forecasts to determine whether to don protective masks. U.S. Forces Korea has a monitoring system on its website, and the Seoul tower that overlooks downtown from its mountain perch changes color to signal high levels.

The $20 million KORUS-AQ project, which will last three years including data analysis and preparations, is also trying to determine how much of Korea’s pollution comes from outside and how much is generated at home after decades of rapid industrial development and growth in coal-fueled plants.

South Korea ranked 173rd of 180 countries in terms of air quality on this year’s Environmental Performance Index released by Yale University. China was next to last.

“The Gobi Desert dust is a huge problem here,” said James Crawford, lead scientist on the project. “But it is not nearly as big of a health problem as the ozone and the very fine particles.”

The findings will help determine the pollutants’ origin and determine how to more effectively use satellites to monitor air quality from space.

There is a growing awareness within Asia about the interconnected dangers from fine dust, which doesn’t respect borders. While Korea gets hit by particles from China, it in turn sends polluted air downwind to Japan.

The three governments recently agreed to work together to try to solve the problem.

On a near-daily basis, the scientists and crew members gather for a pre-dawn briefing in a hangar near the Osan Air Base flight line. They then board the DC-8, which has been transformed into a flying laboratory with sensitive instruments and other machines to measure chemicals in the air and gather samples.

The four-engine plane, commissioned by the Armstrong Flight Research Center’s Earth Science department, was built in 1969 and acquired by NASA in 1985. Its work is complemented by two smaller planes, one operated by NASA and designed to simulate a satellite and the other operated by South Korea’s Hanseo University.

Veteran pilots Richard “Dick” Ewers and Frank Batteas steer the DC-8 according to a flight plan but are ready to change direction and altitude upon request.

Ewers, 69, who is planning to retire after this mission, smiled during a coordinated flyover of a Korean research ship near China.

“They’re waving to us from the deck,” he said. “I’ll bet we’re going to be on some Facebook pages tonight.”

Nearly three dozen scientists communicating via headsets work in the DC-8’s cabin using laptops and multiple computer screens.

Nicola Blake, a project scientist from the University of California, Irvine, sat on the floor between two machines covered with dials and metal tubes she calls snakes. Her job was to collect air samples that would later be sent via express mail to a U.S. laboratory for analysis.

Somewhere about 2,000 feet above water near the southern tip of the peninsula, Deedee Montzka of Colorado’s National Center for Atmospheric Research made an announcement.

“We just hit 200,” she said excitedly, referring to ozone measuring 200 parts per billion, the highest level detected by the project since it started in Korea.

Crawford later said that was a brief, uncalibrated number, but it was part of a long-term pattern showing strong pollution moving offshore at low altitude toward Japan.

Ozone, which is created by the chemical reaction of pollutants, can trigger several health problems, including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and airway inflammation. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma, and does long-term damage to lung tissue through chronic exposure.

This is different from so-called good ozone, which occurs naturally in the upper atmosphere and forms a protective layer against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

“We are seeing levels of ozone that are easily three or four times as high as the highest values we were seeing in Colorado,” Montzka said while taking a coffee break during the 8 1/2-hour flight. “Here we see those levels in a constant soup of dirty air.”

Pollution is not unique to South Korea, but the peninsula is uniquely situated for the study because of its position in the region.

South Korea’s government, meanwhile, announced a series of measures, including stricter emissions tests for diesel vehicles, aimed at bringing the country’s air quality to Western levels within a decade.

“The government acknowledges that fine dust is a grave environmental problem, which poses a threat to people’s safety and health,” it said Friday in a statement.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy also is considering a plan to close aging coal-fueled plants or replace them with liquefied natural gas facilities, according to the Yonhap news agency.

The nation of 50 million people has 53 coal-fueled power plants, including 11 that have operated for more than 30 years and three that have operated for more than 40.


Twitter: @kimgamel

NASA pilots Dick Ewers, left, and Frank Batteas of the California-based Dryden Flight Research Center prepare to board a DC-8 on May 30, 2016, at Osan Air Base, South Korea. The flights are part of a six-week joint Korea-U.S. air quality field study to measure heavy pollution over the peninsula.