At the World Cup football tournament in Brazil, the Dutch national team have been playing in different cities under very different conditions. Ambient temperature, humidity and precipitation are discussed at great length in every preview, but what about the air quality? Dutch researchers are taking advantage of the World Cup to refine their models so that they will be able to issue a daily forecast of the air quality during the Olympic Games in 2016 – which are also to be held in Brazil.
Will it be warm enough to wear shorts tomorrow or will we need an umbrella? Every day meteorologists inform us of the temperature, precipitation and wind, and how overcast conditions will be, by means of a few symbols. An air quality forecast can be presented in a similar fashion using data on ozone, nitrogen dioxide and aerosols (particulate matter) in the atmosphere. Forecasts of this kind are handy for people with health problems such as asthma.
Lyana Curier, an air quality researcher at TNO, is working with researchers at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), the National Institute of Public Health and Environmental Protection (RIVM) and the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency to develop regional air quality models: “So far we have only been making forecasts for Europe. We use theoretical models, measurements on the ground and data from satellite instruments to do so. The World Cup seemed a great occasion to expand our system and develop it further.”
The biggest step in the improvement of the models will take place in between the World Cup and the Olympic Games. Tropomi, the satellite instrument developed in the Netherlands, will be launched into orbit in 2015. Curier explains: “Tropomi will provide us with global data down to city level. This information is difficult to collect on the ground and will therefore improve the models substantially.”
Besides global coverage, satellite data also have the advantage of being accurate and up to date. Many current air quality models are based on indirect calculations and data such as the amount of fuel sold in a year and the output of factories. Emissions of polluting gases are calculated by means of these figures and conclusions can be drawn about changes in the air quality. “Wildfires, like those in Portugal in 2009 and in Moscow in 2010, are not included in these statistics,” Curier continues. “This real-time information from satellite instruments is precisely what we need to improve our models.”
The experimental site around the World Cup in Brazil was set up specifically for the scientific community, so it is quite difficult for laypeople to fathom. The forecasts in various cities have, however, already been given a colour code: green is good, yellow is reasonable, orange is a warning for people with, for example, respiratory disorders and red means that everyone is at risk of developing health problems.
For the Olympic Games in two years’ time, the models and three-day forecasts will be more accurate and there will be a map of all the regions of Brazil showing at a glance whether the Dutch team and their supporters will be able to breathe fresh air or will be coughing and spluttering their way around.
The launch of Tropomi in 2016 will usher in an exciting period for those involved in conducting atmospheric research, says Curier: “We live in a world that we have made very comfortable for ourselves. We are affluent and have every possible convenience, but we are damaging the environment with our lifestyle. This is why we have to find out how to maintain our prosperity and economic growth without further impacting the environment. In my work, I am trying to make a small but significant contribution to that solution.”
The researchers behind the World Cup forecast have noticed that confidence in air quality models is increasing, thanks to the quality of measuring instruments like Tropomi. In the future they will be working on more relevant models, for instance for industrial areas in China and the emerging economies. “Ultimately, it is up to governments to make policy”, concludes Curier, “but our models can play an extremely important role in those policy-making endeavours.”