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Researchers launch balloon in Setauket to measure pollution from NYC

University at Albany student researchers Brennan Stutsrim, 21,

University at Albany student researchers Brennan Stutsrim, 21, of upstate Delmar, left, and Chris Conover, 22, of Greenlawn, prepare to launch a balloon from the Flax Pond Marine Laboratory in East Setauket to measure the pollution floating from New York City to Long Island on Thursday to collect data that will add to a study on how pollution from the city travels across the Island's North Shore and across the Sound. Credit: Danielle Silverman

New York City provides Long Islanders a stunning array of theaters, restaurants and museums, but also offers the Island something else — clouds of pollution that hover over nearby waters. While New York City offers Long Islanders a stunning array of theaters, restaurants, and museums, it also regularly sends the Island something else -- clouds of pollution that hover over nearby waters.

The toxic gases from automobiles, ships and power plants in the city make their way east, where they are trapped by the cooler waters of the Long Island Sound, researchers say.

Students from the University at Albany Thursday launched an eight-foot tall atmospheric balloon from the Flax Pond Marine Laboratory in East Setauket to measure the pollution floating from New York City to Long Island.

The helium-filled white latex sphere rose to more than 100,000 feet for over two hours. At its peak size the balloon expands to a 38-foot circumference, providing a vertical profile of atmospheric pollution as it rises.

“The project helps us understand how pollution travels once it is emitted from cities, power plants and major roadways.” said Brennan Stutsrim, 21, of upstate Delmar who has performed 18 similar launches on Long Island throughout the summer.

The research project, the Long Island Sound Tropospheric Ozone Study (LISTOS), is part of a larger study with other schools, state and federal agencies to determine how large bodies of water interact with pollution. Using satellites, aircrafts and atmospheric balloons, the group looks to measure the air pollution settling along the Sound.

“If we know where the pollution is coming from we can update air quality regulations,” said Chris Conover, 22, of Greenlawn. “Cities that have poor air quality may not be the ones causing the poor air quality,” he said explaining the EPA’s procedure on regulating air pollution.

The shuffling of bad air between New York City and Long Island dates back to the Industrial Age, researchers said. The proximity of the land masses along with wind direction creates the pollution pattern.

First westerly winds from New York City carry pollution toward the Sound. The cooler waters of the Sound — which can sometimes buffer incoming storms — mix with the pollution to create the toxic plume. On hot summer days, cool marine waters create a sea breeze shoving the toxic mass of pollution inland.

Throughout the country, pollution levels have dropped but along the Northeast corridor where New York City faces the North Shore of Long Island, levels continue to surpass the EPA pollution air standards, according to the website of the Northeast Coordinated Air Use Management, an association of northeastern states that tracks air quality.

“We’ve seen every category on the air quality index from good to very unhealthy,” Stutsrim said of his balloon launches on Long Island. “But most of the measurements on the surface have been in the moderate category.”

Air pollution can cause lung and eye irritation and respiratory problems. Toxic air can also contribute to increased emergency room visits and also damage plant life said James Schwab, research professor at the University at Albany.

“All of us including the graduate students find the scientific work challenging and interesting but it’s also satisfying in approving the quality [for] people” Schwab said.


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