Nov 20, 2019

Geography students study the air — from above

Juan Villa / The Collegian

The Fresno State geography department is conducting a unique, two-phased air quality research endeavor to measure ozone levels in the Central Valley and to educate the public on the health effects of air pollution.

Headed by assistant professor of geography Segun Ogunjemiyo, Ph.D., and department chair Sam Omolayo, the first phase of the research project started in May and ended in September. It focused on ozone measurement, which peaks during the summer due to the increased amount of sunlight. Researchers and students launched a 16-foot-long orange blimp into the campus air to collect the critical data.

Phase two of the project will begin in December. It will concentrate on the volume of pollutants in the air and the correlation of particulate matter produced by human activity, such as vehicle emissions and wood burning, which is at its highest levels in the winter.

Ogunjemiyo said the purpose of the project was to educate people on the impact of air pollutants and to raise awareness of the pollution problem in the Valley.

“It is important for people to know how pollutant concentration varies during the day,” Ogunjemiyo said. “People who are sensitive or who have respiratory problems need to know when to do outdoor activity or not.

The data collected from these phases will be used to affect policy matters in the Valley in the hopes that the air quality will improve with the reduction of pollutant emissions.

Geography department photo

Ogunjemiyo said two tons of helium gas was used to inflate the giant balloon. The blimp and its monitoring device, called a tethersonde, ascended a mile-and-a-half into the air to measure pollutants vertically. Ogunjemiyo said the blimp also measured temperature, air pressure, wind speed, direction and humidity.

The blimp is deflated and stored in the department’s lab until its December take-off.

Geography lecturer Stuart McFeeters, Ph.D., who assisted with the research by moving helium tanks, fixing power lines and rigging equipment, is now helping to analyze the data.

“The purpose of the research is to get a good characterization of the distribution of ozone in the Valley,” McFeeters said. “Most research is done at the ground level. Vertical research can tell if ozone is imported or created locally and can tell how the levels change throughout the summer.”

The Fresno State research program, according to Ogunjemiyo, is unique in its design and process.

“Usually air quality research is devoted to regular pollution,” Ogunjemiyo said. “We are the only group doing this kind of research in the Valley and we are the only institution to have this type of equipment. It gives the students a hands-on experience and prepares them for graduate studies.”

The research up until now has made great strides to improve air quality.

“The bottom line is that we are still getting more people here,” McFeeters said of the Valley. “It is a concern that must be foremost on our minds or health issues will continue to plague us.”

Ogunjemiyo said unhealthy air quality was due to “bad ozone,” which is located in the troposphere and formed unnaturally due to the chemical interaction between ultra violet rays and the gases produced by human activities.

“Bad ozone is not good for health,” Ogunjemiyo said. “It causes respiratory problems, asthma and is responsible for photochemical smog.”

Ogunjemiyo said the research was made possible by a $208,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and an additional contribution of $80,000 by the College of Social Sciences.

McFeeters said the research findings will be written into journal articles and submitted for publication.

“Once we are able to crunch through all the data and arrive at a conclusion, we will make it available to legislators,” McFeeters said. “This is valuable information to use to write good laws to protect us.”

McFeeters said the findings will also be used to write grant proposals to receive external funding that will continue to support the research when the present grant runs out.

“We will resume ozone measurement in June,” Ogunjemiyo said. “There is only a two-year duration for the grant. We are hoping to get more funding.”

Air quality is not the only thing to benefit from the research. The students involved also benefit.

“Students can come into the geography program and pick up a lot of education about environmental studies,” McFeeters said. “We can supply real data – happening right here – that we’ve collected and analyzed. You can’t buy field experience. You have to experience it.”

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