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The air up there

High altitude air quality monitoring shows global reach of air pollution



Atmospheric scientists in recent weeks have been working atop Whistler Mountain, trying to figure out exactly what sullies the air there. It's not pollution from local cities. At 2,182 metres (7,142 feet), air collected at the huts adjacent to top lift terminal remains relatively unaffected by fumes from Vancouver, Whistler and other urban sources.

The scientists have more regional, even global ambitions. They hope to understand the influence of forest fires in California, volcanoes in Alaska and even the deserts of Asia. They have also been measuring the soot produced by proliferating coal-fired power plants, factories and highways.

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The research at Whistler has been part of a broader effort in Oregon, Colorado and other states and provinces to better understand long-range transport of atmospheric pollution. This understanding matters because even as government jurisdictions in North America work to improve air quality, particles from Asia threaten to offset those gains.

"We are sitting in the perfect place to look at the chemistry," explained Allan Bertram, a researcher in atmospheric chemistry from the University of British Columbia who has been working at the lab on Whistler Mountain. "It's like a huge lab for studying chemistry."

The work at Whistler may also help partially resolve lingering uncertainty about what may be the most problematic issue of the 21 st century, global warming, also known as global climate change. Environment Canada, in cooperation with researchers from several Canadian and U.S. universities, has been studying the interactions between atmospheric particles and clouds.

So far, the formation and behavior of clouds have eluded more than a rudimentary understanding by climate scientists. The work at Whistler may help climate scientists develop computer models that better reflect how clouds heat or cool the atmosphere.

Without that understanding, climate scientists have been forced to concede that they're not absolutely sure that increasing temperatures are entirely natural or at least partially a result of human activities.


Asia's migratory stew

The semi-permanent laboratory atop Whistler Mountain was first established in 2002 by Environment Canada. "It is a very clean site with very little influence from North American pollution," explained the agency's Brigitte Lemay, a media relations advisor, in response to e-mailed questions.

"Because the air is very clean, trans-Pacific pollution transport events can more readily be identified and the influences quantified," she said. "At sites closer to urban sources this signal may be masked."

This transport from Asia arrives most strongly in spring, but to a lesser extent through the year. The mountain-top equipment can measure levels of ozone, carbon monoxide and mercury, but also characterize both the chemical and physical properties of atmospheric particles.