What's in the air we breathe?

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Appalachian State University is monitoring air quality and atmospheric conditions to learn their impact on the area's ecosystems and climate. The project called AppalAIR (Appalachian Atmospheric Interdisciplinary Research) is located on the campus's highest point—about 3,500 feet above sea level.

"Scientifically, it's a very important site for us here at Appalachian, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as well as climatologists around the world. Everyone is very interested in this data," said Brett Taubman, an assistant professor of chemistry at Appalachian.

The monitoring station and its 30-meter tower make up the only monitoring site east of the Mississippi River that has been invited to collaborate with NOAA's global network of aerosol monitoring stations. NOAA has loaned equipment to Appalachian to assist with the project.

The southeastern U.S. is considered the most polluted area in the country in terms of aerosols, the particulate matter in the atmosphere that can impact climate as well as plant and human health. The source of aerosols can be both natural and manmade.

"Plants emit volatile organic compounds that react with the atmosphere and ultimately form particles. The blue-grey haze of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains was historically from the natural aerosols that form as a result of these emissions," Taubman said. "We collect manmade and naturally occurring or biogenic aerosols and look at the size and number of particles and their chemical and optical properties. The effect of biogenic aerosols on the climate is a huge source of uncertainty especially here in the Southeast."

"This monitoring station will let us see how pollutants move across the country, how they age and affect the climate and vegetation," said Patrick Sheridan with NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. He said partnerships, such as the one with Appalachian, are important in NOAA's ability to monitor climate conditions across the United States.

AppalAIR is a collaboration of six departments in Appalachian's College of Arts and Sciences: biology, chemistry, geography and planning, geology, physics and astronomy, and computer science.

Both graduate and undergraduate students from each department assist with the research. Students have opportunities to maintain and calibrate instruments, collect data, and help sort and analyze the information. Their involvement culminates in writing scientific manuscripts and making presentations at professional meetings.

"There is a real need for an atmospheric research facility in northwest North Carolina capable of collecting the atmospheric data that are currently lacking," said AppalAIR researcher Howard Neufeld, a biology professor who has studied the physiological effects of air pollution on native plant species for more than 20 years. "Appalachian's location and mission make it the ideal place for doing this type of atmospheric research."

Data collected at the monitoring site can be accessed at appalair.appstate.edu. Future plans call for offering educational outreach programs to the public at the facility.

Funding and support for the AppalAIR project comes from NOAA, the National Science Foundation, N.C. Space Grant consortium, and Appalachian's College of Arts and Sciences.