Caroline Parworth, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, has a host of accomplishments, qualifications and space-age tools under her belt. And they’ve all led her to soaring through the Californian skies in the passenger seat of a two-person fighter jet. Why? She’s helping NASA fight pollution, one scoop of air at a time.
We all know that pollution is one of the big bads (of our own making) terrorizing this blue speck we hold dear and it’s also the reason Arné exists. But why is NASA involved? Aren’t they all about sending rockets to Mars?
They do plenty of that (and the images are spectacular), but they also spend a lot of time and resources conducting research into what’s going on closer to home, finding ways to combat pollution, climate change and its deadly effects. These days, Parworth and her team are a big part of that mission.
We were lucky enough to interview the scientist herself and find out more about NASA’s pollution research and her involvement in the study. Read on to find out more.
The pollution problem: looking for causes, combatting effects
Almost everywhere you go these days, from the streets of Mumbai and Shanghai to Dubai, pollution is a destructive and deadly force. As Parworth explains, ‘PM2.5 and gases, which are types of atmospheric pollutants, can affect global climate, human health, and visibility’. That sounds pretty dire, and, unfortunately, it is. PM2.5 and gases can change the radiative balance of Earth, leading to the phenomena we all know of as global warming. Air pollution is now the greatest environmental risk to human health, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Parworth verifies that ‘when inhaled, PM2.5 can penetrate deep into the lungs, damaging the lung, heart, and brain’.
Here at Arné, we’re focused on air pollution and its effects on our skin – our Anti-pollution Mist and Gel protect your skin from pollution (particulate matter) of PM2.5 and up. Everything we do is backed by years of scientific research, some of which relates directly to our products, the ingredients we use and their effectiveness. But well before we started looking for a solution we were concerned about the cause. Which is how we came across Parworth and her research.
How is NASA helping the pollution problem?
As the famous scientist (and only woman to win two Nobel prizes to date) Marie Curie said, ‘Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.’ And the same applies to the devastating effect humans are having on the planet. (Although a healthy amount of fear might be a good thing for some of our world leaders.)
The first step to fighting pollution, is understanding it. And the only way to understand it, is to observe it. NASA has a fleet of Earth-observing satellites that are used to monitor oceans, biosphere and atmosphere. These satellites are also used to monitor pollution levels in our atmosphere, giving us a greater understanding of air pollution on a global scale.
‘We must understand what the major sources of PM2.5 and gases are, and once emitted how the chemistry and quantity of these pollutants change over time. This can help us to understand how we can reduce air pollution and protect human health,’ says Parworth. It’s inspiring to see another brilliant female scientist, over a century after Curie, using science to uncover truth and dispel ignorance.
So why is Parworth flying fighter jets to fight pollution?
Parworth’s PhD dissertation consisted of ‘researching the sources and chemistry of atmospheric fine particulates (PM2.5) in locations around the US’. Working in the field, she’s taken measurements at remote and urban locations, including one of the most polluted regions of California, the San Joaquin Valley. San Joaquin Valley has recorded particularly bad air quality, due to a combination of meteorology, geography, and pollution sources related to urban and agricultural activities (cars and cows).
These days, she works on the Alpha Jet Atmospheric eXperiment (AJAX), which uses a research aircraft to take measurements of trace gases (carbon dioxide, methane, formaldehyde, and ozone) in the western US. As she explains, ‘these measurements are firstly used for understanding where these pollutants come from (e.g. long-range transport from Asia, wildfires, urban pollution, etc.) and what happens to them over time in our atmosphere. And secondly, for validating Earth-orbiting satellites that are used to measure levels of gases in our atmosphere.’
Is there hope for the future?
As stated on NASA’s webpage dedicated to AJAX, ‘with an improved ability to monitor pollution from satellites, scientists could make better air quality forecasts, more accurately determine the sources of pollutants in the air and more closely determine the fluctuations in emissions levels. In short, the more accurate data scientists have at hand, the better society is able to deal effectively with lingering pollution problems.’
NASA also has a host of other projects on the go to monitor and combat the effects of pollution. From measuring air pollution’s relationship to population density to investigating how pollution, storms and climate mix, or looking at pollution’s effects on clouds (it messes with rainfall more than you’d imagine) – there’s a lot being done to track and tackle these deep-rooted problems.