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Scientists will fly over New York City to sample greenhouse gas emissions

The downtown Manhattan skyline looms over pedestrians wearing masks due to COVID-19 concerns. The New York death toll was 783 over the past 24 hours, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a Saturday news conference.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images
New York City skyline.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the goal of federal, state and local policies to curb the primary contributor to climate change. Researchers on the ground track this data from major polluters.

A group of scientists from Stony Brook University has received a $1.7 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to take to the skies to look at the big picture to see if these goals are being met from the Northeast urban corridor of the United States. The plane is equipped with air sampling over the New York City metro area.

WSHU’s J.D. Allen spoke with Paul Shepson, the lead author and university’s dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

WSHU: When people think about how science gets done, a lot of times people think of lab work that goes along with it — you know, scientists and white coats, that kind of deal. While there might be some of that kind of analysis, you're getting your data in an interesting way.

PS: So, New York state is a true leader in this area with two different sets of legislation. There's one in New York City called the Climate Mitigation Act, and there's one statewide called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. And they both have a very ambitious goal of decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030.

So we gotta get on it, but we don't really have a good way of confirming, knowing for sure, how we are doing. Is this legislation working?

And so my research group at Stony Brook is operating an airplane that is instrumented with various tools that measure these greenhouse gasses, measure temperature and pressure and wind speed and wind direction. And that enables us to effectively count up how many molecules of carbon dioxide and methane are flowing downwind out of New York City.

WSHU: What's the difference between trying to test air quality, whether you're a couple of thousand feet up or if your feet are on the ground?

PS: So when you're on the ground, you tend to see the emissions from sources that are close by. When you get way up in the air, you can essentially see the impact of all of the emissions from all the five boroughs of New York City.

And if the winds are blowing from the west and you're out over Long Island, you see the emissions from Newark and other cities in New Jersey and all of New York City. You see an integration of everything that people are doing that are contributing to both poor air quality and contributing to a warming climate.

WSHU: And we know that as it stands, that not everybody is impacted by both of those problems equally. And so being able to test emissions that will help set up a methodology for improving legislation to reduce New York or the city's impact on climate change would have an effect on communities that are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality and the impacts of climate change.

PS: Yeah, so we're really focused on these issues and challenges of environmental justice. When we don't do anything about disproportionate impacts, we are all complicit in the existence of these disproportionate environmental impacts.

So we are working with everyone in New York state through the legislation and how it's implemented in improving the air quality the most for frontline communities who have been historically receiving a greater than average share of the impacts of the use of fuels.

When we convert from that to wind and solar, the emissions in those frontline communities go down, and then the associated health impacts are reduced.

And so everybody wins in a way that, that focuses on equity, you know, sort of equal access to clean air. And that is just incredibly important.

WSHU: Paul, did you say that that you're the pilot?

PS: So my project has two pilots: me and another fellow. So I've been flying our airplanes since 2002. It's just a blast. I love doing it.

You know, New York City is pretty coastal, and so there are lots of threats from severe storms and sea level rise. And we don't have any choice to do something. But fortunately we're making headway.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.