Thunderstorms: An Important Mechanism in the Transport of Air Pollutants

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Science  23 Jan 1987:
Vol. 235, Issue 4787, pp. 460-465
DOI: 10.1126/science.235.4787.460


Acid deposition and photochemical smog are urban air pollution problems, and they remain localized as long as the sulfur, nitrogen, and hydrocarbon pollutants are confined to the lower troposphere (below about 1-kilometer altitude) where they are short-lived. If, however, the contaminants are rapidly transported to the upper troposphere, then their atmospheric residence times grow and their range of influence expands dramatically. Although this vertical transport ameliorates some of the effects of acid rain by diluting atmospheric acids, it exacerbates global tropospheric ozone production by redistributing the necessary nitrogen catalysts. Results of recent computer simulations suggest that thunderstorms are one means of rapid vertical transport. To test this hypothesis, several research aircraft near a midwestern thunderstrom measured carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, ozone, and reactive nitrogen compounds. Their concentrations were much greater in the outflow region of the storm, up to 11 kilometers in altitude, than in surrounding air. Trace gas measurements can thus be used to track the motion of air in and around a cloud. Thunderstorms may transform local air pollution problems into regional or global atmospheric chemistry problems.