Is Houston’s Air Quality Triggering Crazy Thunderstorms?

Are the extreme thunderstorms we're seeing due to pollution?
Are the extreme thunderstorms we're seeing due to pollution? Photo by ARM User Facility
It’s not exactly a shock to most Houstonians to note that the Bayou City has a rep for notoriously less-than-ideal air quality and for towering thunderstorms that roll through town almost year-round. But scientists are now investigating whether these two things might actually be connected.

In fact, a team of atmospheric scientists from around the country are congregating in Houston starting this Friday to begin a 14-month-long study aimed at determining whether the microscopic specks of smoke, dust, and soot created by industry, vehicles, and the way the city is laid out have an impact on the severity of thunderstorms.

Working with researchers at the University of Houston, TRACER scientists—aka TRacking Aerosol Convection interactions ExpeRiment, a study being carried out by the federal Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement user facility—from Brookhaven National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and other institutions will collect data on aerosols and atmospheric characteristics.

“We want to know how aerosols, the tiny particles that water condenses onto to form cloud droplets, influence the physics of deep convective clouds—the kind that often pack lightning and pour rain—and then how those same weather conditions affect the local aerosol characteristics and urban air quality,” Michael Jensen, a meteorologist at the DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and the principal investigator for the TRACER field campaign, stated.

To pull this off, ARM equipment including radar, has been set up at La Porte’s airport, a location selected because of its proximity to the rows of refineries along the nearby Houston Ship Channel, clearly. The equipment will be used to gather all kinds of data including air particles, temperature, humidity, precipitation, cloud makeup, and a slew of other things. In addition, the team will be launching more than 1,500 weather balloons that can round up data from ground level all the way up to the top of the atmosphere.

Although this gear has been deployed in other spots around the world, including the Arctic, its Houston debut marks the first time it will be used in an urban environment. Of course, the fact that Houston is the focus is no accident. With our city’s mix of naturally occurring aerosols (like sea salt from the Gulf of Mexico and the Saharan dust that coats our cars in thin layers of tawny silt every so often) and the industry and vehicle emissions that are so often just chalked up as a cost of doing business in this town, Houston was the obvious choice for the project.

“We’re a coastal environment, so it’s particularly challenging to forecast the weather,” James Flynn, an atmospheric chemistry research associate professor at University of Houston, stated. “We have a lot of thunderstorms; we have pollution and some natural sources of fine particles.”
If the project goes well, Flynn and the rest of the crew are hoping they’ll come away with better abilities to forecast Houston’s weather and maybe even a more solid handle on predicting hurricanes and floods.

But the most storm-centric research won’t get started until next summer. That’s when NASA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the Natural Science Foundation will all be involved in intensive analysis of the summer storms that comprise our rainiest time of year (other than hurricane season).

The study might even help improve weather forecasting for our notoriously changeable city.

Even more intriguingly, the data collected by ARM will be available to anyone who wants to use it. “We hope the things we learn here, the processes within convective activity, how pollution impacts storms, will be applicable in other major urban areas that have a lot of convection,” Flynn said. “With a lot of projects, you’re really getting down to some real core science. People sometimes aren’t sure why it matters. This is one of those projects that is very applicable to everyday life here in Houston.”
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray