By Laura L. Acosta
The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution is responsible for 3 million deaths each year associated with diseases such as pneumonia, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer.
Rosa Fitzgerald, Ph.D., associate professor of physics at The University of Texas at El Paso, works to improve the characterization and understanding of the pollutants present in the air, research that ultimately will help develop strategies to improve air quality.
“This work is important to both our generation and future generations because it characterizes aspects of the atmosphere that we breathe,” she said.
Using remote sensing and computer modeling, Fitzgerald can detect and retrieve information about the pollutants that are present in the atmosphere on a given day, including aerosol particles and ozone.
She uses campus-based instruments to obtain optical depth values for the region on a given day. Using computer models developed by her and her research group, she is able to retrieve information, such as aerosol size distribution.
Aerosols are tiny particles suspended in the air, which can derive from natural occurrences such as dust storms or volcanoes, or can be generated from human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, according to NASA.
Using computer models, Fitzgerald also can predict the motion and transport of the pollutants, in addition to their concentration in our region. This can be used to forecast air pollution, visibility impairment, climatology impacts, or even detect a biological attack.
“It’s a combination of experimental data and models used to extract the information that we need to characterize and to detect the aerosols and determine their motion and trajectory,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald’s methods can be used to track air pollution in any part of the United States, but she has specifically applied them to study air pollution along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Our goal is to establish a very strong capability both in experiment and modeling for our region, and our binational studies precisely address that need,” Fitzgerald said. “Since we are located in the border region, it is important to have this capability in El Paso.”
El Paso and Juárez share the same air, so Fitzgerald is able to conduct her research without having to travel across the border.
The research has been funded by a variety of agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the New Mexico Health Agency and NASA.
Fitzgerald started the Atmospheric Physics Research Group at UTEP that includes physics, environmental science and computational science majors. Students complete research tasks and participate in conferences and summer internships at other universities and NOAA labs.
“The field of atmospheric physics is an expanding field”, Fitzgerald said. “There is intense interest today in air pollution, climatology and global warming, because it is essential to be concerned about Earth’s condition for future generations.”
Fitzgerald also organizes weather camps during the summer for high school students and is involved in creating a new undergraduate atmospheric physics concentration being developed in the physics department.
She is the co-principal investigator on a $404,000 grant to monitor and reduce pollution in the region. UTEP will collaborate with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization to identify, inventory and monitor ozone pollution levels in the Paso del Norte region.
Other UTEP researchers on the team are Wen-Whai Li, Ph.D., professor of civil engineering; Huiyan Yang, Ph.D., a physics lecturer; Kelvin Cheu, Ph.D., associate professor of civil engineering; and Hongling Yang, Ph.D., a mathematical sciences lecturer.