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Rowland group tackles air quality after oil spill

Researchers deploy to the Gulf of Mexico, rent a Forrest Gump-like boat and start analyzing air samples.

March 12, 2012|By Deirdre Newman

When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in 2010, sending millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, most scientists were concerned about the damage to sea life.

Not many gave a whiff of thought to air quality.

The Rowland-Blake Group at UC Irvine was an exception. Student researchers from this group deployed to the gulf, rented a Forrest Gump-like boat and started analyzing air samples.

By measuring certain gases, they found that the air was dirtier than in Los Angeles or Mexico City. The group's findings even inspired a National Science Foundation team of researchers to divert their plane from a project in the Inland Empire to the gulf to check out the air for themselves.

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This scientific foray was business as usual for members of the Rowland-Blake Group, named after UCI professors F. Sherwood Rowland,a Nobel Prize-winningscientist, and Donald R. Blake, chairman of the chemistry department.

Rowland died over the weekend in his Corona del Mar home at age 84.

The group has been isolating and quantifying various gases to measure their impact on the environment since 1976, but the range of projects has expanded and the research has become more rigorous, Blake said.

About 20 people are in the group, ranging from grad students to technicians to Ph.D.s.

"Our group is one of the few in the world that takes measurements that are then used by the modeling community to estimate future climate change," Blake said. "There are not many groups like us in the U.S."

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Scope of projects

The group's research is based on air sample canisters from around the world. Some of these canisters are placed on airplane wings, some on boats.

One area of recent, significant research is methane, the topic of Blake's thesis and a greenhouse gas that can cause urban smog.

"I never thought when we started running samples in 1979 that it would be as important as it is now," he said.

Members of the group, including Blake, will be flying on two NASA projects later this year: one based in Kansas and one in Thailand. Data obtained from the Kansas project — which includes atmospheric observations in Colorado, Oklahoma and Alabama — will provide insight into the upper troposphere, where ozone is active as a greenhouse gas.

The purpose of the Thailand project is to examine the effect of emissions in Asia on clouds, climate and air quality.

The group has been studying the air in China as well.

"Everyone is downwind of someone there," Blake said.

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