BROOMFIELD — An intensive campaign to measure air pollution along Colorado's northern Front Range will produce a wealth of data to help identify the sources and levels of harmful ozone, researchers said Tuesday.
Aircraft, balloons, vans and ground stations will collect and analyze millions of air samples over the next month, from the south Denver area to Fort Collins.
"This is one of the largest air quality studies that has taken place in Colorado and even in the United States," said Gabriele Pfister, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research or NCAR.
Researchers and health officials said the data will help regulators target their efforts to reduce ozone. It will also help scientists predict ozone levels more accurately, verify how good current monitoring is and improve computer models that forecasters use.
The oil and gas industry produces the highest volume of ozone-producing chemicals in the area, said Garry Kaufman, a deputy administrator for the state health department. Most of that comes from vapors release from storage tanks, he said. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a much smaller contributor, he said.
Cars and trucks emit lesser volumes of ozone-causing pollution than the energy industry, but the kinds of chemicals they produce react more readily to create ozone, Kaufman said.
Ozone can worsen asthma and other breathing problems and can damage crops and other vegetation. Power plants and agriculture are among the other major sources of chemicals that combine to create ozone.
NCAR, NASA and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment are participating in the $10 million study, funded by the state and federal governments.
The Denver area exceeds federal standards for ozone, and officials said the new data will help lawmakers and regulators make decisions about bringing levels down.
"This is really going to help us target our efforts," Kaufman said.
Two NASA aircraft and one from the National Science Foundation — NCAR's parent — will fly a total of up to 300 hours during the study, collecting samples and making observations.
Some of the aircraft will spiral downward above ground stations so researchers have readings at multiple elevations at the same spot.
A higher-flying plane will make observations similar to those a satellite would make, said Jim Crawford, a NASA scientist.
Researchers showed off the planes Tuesday at Rocky Mountain Regional Airport in the Denver suburb of Broomfield. One, a converted military C-130 cargo plane, was crammed inside with five rows of instruments and peppered outside with air intakes and sensors.
Flights could start Wednesday if conditions are favorable.
Researchers expect to publish their first reports within a year but say the data will support years of study.