Transcripts of Michelle Thaller Interview re: Air Quality

Reporter: Well it's officially summer and that means we're all heading outdoors for pool parties and picnics, but as you fire up the grill, you might be surprised to know that the air we breathe outdoors each summer is actually getting cleaner across the country. New images are showing these improvements from the unique perspective of space, and here to tell us more about it is NASA scientist Dr. Michelle Thaller, thank you for joining us.

Michelle: Hey, great to be here! Thank you.

Reporter: So as the summer heats up, we often report on bad air quality, but what are these images really showing us about air quality in our area?

Michelle: Well we actually have some very good news to report on today that's coming from our Aura satellite, which has been actually celebrating its tenth anniversary in about two weeks. We're looking at nitrogen dioxide. The red color on this map of the United States, this is 2005, shows you where there was a lot of nitrogen dioxide. Now in 2011, there's a lot less red. Nitrogen dioxide is actually responsible for a lot of different sorts of pollution like smog and ozone. Here's the northeast United States, look at all that red in 2005. Now let's go to 2011. So you can see there really had been a measurable difference. Things have gotten better in the last ten years.

Reporter: Why is this happening:

Michelle: Well nitrogen dioxide has produced by things like power plants, it comes out of smokestacks, and also by traffic. So what we've been doing is actually monitoring our emissions. We now scrub the emissions coming out of power plants so that there isn't much of this nitrogen dioxide gas coming out at all. And even though there are more cars on the road today and people are driving more miles than ever before, a car today only pollutes about 1/20th the amount a car in 1960 did. So when you go and get your emissions checked, this is now part of our life, this has had a real effect on our air quality.

Reporter: So what have we learned about air quality around the world?

Michelle: Well around the world, the picture of course is more complicated. Across the United States, we see this measurable improvement. There are also parts of the world where air quality is getting worse right now. Here's a map where you can actually see nitrogen dioxide concentrations globally. And you'll notice that there are areas that are lit up these are areas where there's a lot of this being produced. There's actually very bad air quality down in places like Asia. So that's something to monitor and to keep improving.

Reporter: So why is NASA studying air quality?

Michelle: Well at NASA, we have a very unique perspective, we can actually look down from space and see the planet as a whole. Right now we have 20 different satellites that are up there measuring different aspects of this whole system of the Earth. This is a beautiful visualization where you can actually see different sorts of air pollution. There's dust from deserts, there's burning material from forest fires, there's emissions from things like coal plants and power plants from Asia again. So we see the entire planet as a whole. There are no borders to the atmosphere, all of the air we breathe globally. So with our satellites up above, we see this happening, we can see and measure what the air quality is.

Reporter: Well it's great to finally hear some good news about the environment. Where can we go to learn more?

Michelle: Well to learn more, you can go to where you can find out about all of our different Earth science monitoring missions, including the Aura spacecraft, which as I mentioned is celebrating its tenth anniversary.

Reporter: Great, thank you Michelle.

Michelle: Thank you.

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