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From Satellites to Smog: Enhancing Atmospheric Models with JPSS Observations for Better Air Quality Forecasts

May 31, 2024
The image is an infographic of Earth's atmospheric gases, represented as a pie chart. The largest portion is colored blue, representing Nitrogen at 78%. The second largest section is grey, indicating Oxygen at 21%. A thin sliver represents Carbon Dioxide at 0.04%, highlighted in orange, and the smallest segment is a composite of other gases at 0.96%, shown in multiple colors. The title "Earth's Atmospheric Gases" is at the top. Each gas percentage is labeled clearly on the chart, emphasizing the composition

The Earth's atmosphere primarily consists of nitrogen and oxygen, with the remainder being trace gases that account for less than 1% by volume. Hundreds of trace gases exist, produced through natural processes like photosynthesis and volcanic eruptions, and through anthropogenic processes like the burning of fossil fuels and management of livestock manure, among others. Trace gases are essential for life, as they help keep the Earth warm and protect its inhabitants by absorbing harmful solar radiation. But despite their relatively minor abundance in the atmosphere, many trace gases play a significant role in global air quality and climate change.

The image is a simplified diagram illustrating the chemical reaction that leads to the formation of tropospheric ozone. On the left, there are two molecules represented as clusters of spheres: one for nitrogen oxides with a red and blue sphere labeled "E.g., NO₂", and one for a carbon source with a black and red sphere labeled "E.g., CO". These molecules are followed by a plus sign, indicating they react with each other. Next, there's an illustration of the sun labeled "Sunlight", also followed by a plus si
Ozone precursors like nitrogren dioxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) combine and photochemically react with sunlight to produce surface-level (tropospheric) ozone.

Take ozone, for example: Stratospheric ozone is critical for blocking harmful ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. But tropospheric (ground-level) ozone—formed through chemical reactions with other pollutants—is unhealthy to humans and the environment and is the main ingredient in smog. Wildfires also emit many trace gases that are ozone precursors—carbon monoxide, methane, nitrogen oxides, and others—making fires “quite relevant for air quality for both ozone and particulates,” says Dr. R. Bradley Pierce, Director of the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And because wildfire smoke can travel hundreds and even thousands of miles from its source, the impacts to air quality are often felt around the globe.


This VIIRS satellite true color imagery is overlaid with annotations to depict a wildfire smoke event on May 17, 2023. Red dots indicate the locations of active wildfires, concentrated mainly in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, as noted by a yellow arrow and text. Blue arrows trace the movement and spread of smoke from these wildfires across a broader region, with the text "Wildfire smoke from Canada" explaining the direction of the smoke's travel. The smoke traveled southeast across the Upper Midwest
This May 17, 2023, image from the NOAA-20 Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) shows smoke originating from wildfires in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. The smoke travelled southeast across the Upper Midwest of the United States, eventually reaching the East Coast. Red dots indicate active fires from the Suomi NPP/NOAA-20 VIIRS Fire and Thermal Anomalies product. Source: NASA WorldView.
The image depicts a woman standing on a balcony wearing a protective face mask. She is looking off into the distance, where a thick, orange haze from a nearby wildfire obscures the view of the surrounding area. The haze gives the scene an eerie, sepia-toned appearance. The woman is dressed casually in a black t-shirt with a circular design and glasses, and she is wearing a watch on her left wrist. She appears contemplative or concerned as she gazes at the smoky landscape. There's a quiet, almost desolate fe

Surface-level pollutants at unhealthy levels can trigger chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion in even the healthiest of individuals. It’s not only human health impacts that are worrisome: The economic cost of wildfire smoke can be great. One recent study suggests a 13% loss in earnings linked to drifting smoke plumes because lingering health impacts and other issues reduce worker productivity, lead to premature mortality, and decrease tourism. Another study estimates the value of health impacts from short-term smoke exposure in the continental U.S. at around $79 billion per year. Statistics like this drive home the importance of accurate air quality forecasting so that timely alerts can be issued, and steps can be taken to lessen exposure.

Researchers and air quality forecasters rely on Earth system models that assimilate trace gas measurements from satellite instruments to simulate atmospheric chemistry and predict large scale pollution events. One of these is the Real-time Air Quality Modeling System (RAQMS), a chemistry and aerosol analysis and forecast system that has provided real-time predictions of global air quality since 2012. Supported by the Office of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Observations Proving Ground and Risk Reduction (PGRR) program, Dr. Pierce and his team at SSEC have been assimilating satellite data into the RAQMS modeling system. This includes data derived from the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) Ozone Mapping and Profiling Suite (OMPS) and the Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS), which measure atmospheric ozone and other trace gases.

The image is a map displaying the total ozone column in Dobson Units (DU) across the globe for August 2019. The data is provided by the RAQMS model assimilated with OMPS LP and OMPS NM observations. The color gradient on the map indicates the concentration of ozone, with blue representing lower values and green to yellow indicating higher values. The contour lines overlaying the colors indicate specific values of ozone concentration. The areas with lower ozone concentrations are predominantly over the south
Total ozone column from the RAQMS modeling system assimilated with JPSS Ozone Mapping and Profiling Suite (OMPS) Nadir Mapper and Limb Profiler observations for August 2019.

The SSEC team is integrating JPSS and other satellite-based observations into the RAQMS system to make atmospheric simulations more accurate and reflective of real-world conditions. The goal is to improve the modeling system’s performance, particularly in estimating the vertical distribution of atmospheric pollutants. These advancements are crucial for enhancing regional air quality forecasts and providing situational awareness, especially for National Weather Service (NWS) Incident Meteorologists who rely on this information during emergencies such as wildfires.

Magazine cover image with a image of the Earth with 3 satellites orbiting in a polar orbit.

Explore the 2023 JPSS Annual Science Digest to learn more about the importance of monitoring natural gas flares, the science behind the VIIRS Nightfire product, and how scientists and others use the tool to detect flares and other combustion sources. The JPSS Annual Science Digest offers an in-depth look into many JPSS products, innovative applications of JPSS data, and the benefit of JPSS to society.