2 Minutes with Randall Martin
June 18, 2012
Despite the known health hazards of air pollution, relatively little is known about its distribution patterns and its impacts on local populations in many parts of the world. Pollution has been detected in the remotest places on Earth, leading scientists to recognize a pressing need to identify and monitor not just the sources of air pollutants, but also to develop accurate methods of tracking and measuring their dispersal around the globe by weather and other factors.
Research conducted by Randalll Martin at Dalhousie University is painting a more comprehensive and accurate picture of air pollution by drawing on other sources in addition to the traditional stationary monitoring stations, located primarily in urban areas.
I work broadly in the area of atmospheric science. And, more specifically, I work in the area of atmospheric chemistry.
Our research seeks to understand chemicals in the atmosphere, chemicals that affect the climate of our Earth, chemicals that affect the quality of the air that people breathe around the world.
So a major challenge in our research is to know the global distribution of chemicals around the world, which is impractical from ground-based instrumentation alone. So we turn to satellite remote sensing. So, for example, in the atmosphere there are these tiny, airborne particles called aerosols. And these aerosols cool the Earth's climate by reflecting sunlight back into space. They affect the colour of sunsets, they affect the cloud formation. These particles are so small that we can breathe them deeply into our lungs, where they cause major health effects, including premature mortality.
Imagine trying to measure the exhaust that comes out of every single vehicle in the world. So we take a different approach, and that approach is to observe a chemical that's emitted from that exhaust—nitrogen dioxide—and then we use a global model to calculate what must have been emitted in order to reproduce those observations. So one of the features that we can pick up from remote sensing are what are the hot spots around the world in which pollutants are being formed. And in this particular case, those hot spots cluster over eastern North America, major cities of North America, northern Europe, east Asia.
One possible benefit from our research is increased life expectancy for people around the world due to improved policies that clean the air that we breathe. Or another application might be that we could contribute to a better understanding of the effects of human activity on climate change and lead to more informed decisions about how we might best deal with this complex issue.
NSERC benefits our research by providing flexible funding. Since science is driven by creativity, the flexible funding that NSERC provides allows our research to be dynamic and to evolve quickly as new discoveries are being made.