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WEATHER MAN: Chris Abbott, a Slippery Rock University environment studies major from Slippery Rock, calibrates weather equipment at SRU's Weather and Air Quality Observatory.

SRU students bring air quality research down to earth with weather observatory

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Slippery Rock University students are measuring air pollutants, researching their terrestrial origins and studying the relationship between air quality and weather at the University's new Weather and Air Quality Observatory. Students say the observatory gives them valuable experience with high-tech equipment and that ultimately their findings will help the University community become more sustainable.

"My research involves analyzing meteorological phenomena. It is something that allows me to be in a leadership role," said Chris Abbott, an environmental studies major from Slippery Rock. "I am using a plethora of high-tech instruments. There is no possible way on my own that I would be able to get my hands on any of this equipment if I weren't a Slippery Rock student. Even an internship wouldn't introduce me to the sheer volume of instruments at my disposal."

SRU erected the 30-foot observatory last summer. It is located 100 feet behind the Storm Harbor Equestrian Center. The observatory operates 24/7 and provides real-time data on air pollutants such as carbon monoxide and vehicle emissions, as well as air temperature, ozone, wind speed and direction, and relative humidity.

"It's given me insight into a world that few others ever get to see," Abbott said.

Julie Snow, SRU assistant professor of geography, geology and the environment, said SRU formed a partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for the student-faculty research. The state agency wants to learn more about the extent of air pollution in western Pennsylvania. The collaboration with DEP makes sense because SRU has shown environmental leadership for decades and is committed to minimizing greenhouse gases and becoming a carbon-neutral campus, she said.

The weather observatory is run and operated by undergraduate researchers. Snow and Jack Livingston, associate professor of geography, geology and the environment, supervise them. Students calibrate instruments, monitor weather, compile data, order software and one is developing a Web site, Snow said.

"We're just weeks away from being able to post our findings online," Snow said. "Students are at their stations once or twice a week. They calibrate instruments, swap out filters and air canisters, look for problems and fix any problem that they see."

A major thrust of the research involves hourly measurements of a suite of air pollutants, Snow said. Students are also trying to understand what causes greenhouse gases, so that steps can be taken to reduce them. The data will eventually be posted on a Web site, giving the public valuable information about ozone levels and other air quality data, so that they can make informed decisions about exercising outside.

The second focus involves researching air quality's relationship to meteorology and writing new computer code that will be used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Snow said. NOAA is a federal agency that focuses on the conditions of the oceans and atmosphere.

Anthony Christie, an SRU computer science major from Somerset, said he is writing a computer program in the Python language that downloads data from NOAA archives and then runs the data through software to create backward trajectories of air particles.

The program will be capable of finding large sets of trajectories over large coordinates nationwide, giving researchers pertinent information about the terrestrial origin of air particles.

"Air quality effects everything we do, and it has an enormous impact on the environment and ecosystems," Christie said. "With a better understanding of air quality and the movement of air particles, hopefully we can combat poor air quality."

Toxic pollutants in the air come from vehicle emissions but are also emitted from other sources such as manufacturers. Many pollutants, including metals and lead, can be hazardous to humans and the environment, Snow said. Western Pennsylvania is also home to many coal-fired power plants, which contribute to acid rain formation.

Christie said the research has enabled him to learn new technologies outside the classroom and apply his skills as a computer science student to a different scientific field. "All of those things have helped me gain confidence in whatever I tackle in my future," he said.

Christie, a junior, said he hopes to pursue a doctorate in computer science after graduating from SRU. "I love learning, and I'd like to learn for the rest of my life," he said. "A lot of people abhor research, whereas I find it exciting and exhilarating."

Abbott, a senior, said he recently applied for job with DeLorme, a research and development facility in Maine that also provides mapping technology.

Snow said the research experience helps to spark a greater interest in science and will give students an additional credential for graduate school or employment.

"All of the students that work with me have an interest in going into the field of air-quality study," she said. "They will go into the field with more experience than other students. They'll have a research background and a background in using all the equipment. They'll also have an understanding of looking at air-quality data and the relationship between air quality and meteorology."

Snow, an expert in air quality and weather, said her students have advanced her knowledge. "They are my research associates; we are working together on this project," she said. "Anthony has contributed a tremendous amount of knowledge that goes well beyond what I know."