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With the 2008 Beijing Olympics set to get underway tomorrow, the effects the polluted skies that drape over the city could have on competing athletes has garnered much media attention.

The Chinese government has tried to stave off criticism and clean up the air by pushing half of the city’s vehicles off the roads for the duration of the Games and closing hundreds of factories, steel mills and coal plants that add to the smog.

The effort has given climate researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, a unique chance to study the Beijing air for eight weeks to see how the atmosphere responds when a heavily populated region substantially curbs everyday industrial emissions.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, the lead researcher, is one of more than 100 scientists doing air-quality experiments during the Games, according to a UCSD release. He is doing his work on the South Korean island of Jeju, about 700 miles southeast of Beijing and directly downwind from the pollution.

Ramanathan is deploying specially-equipped unmanned aircraft developed at Scripps to monitor air quality up to 12,000 feet before and after the Games. He is using another unmanned plane from Edwards Air Force Base to measure how much pollution reaches California. Ramanathan said his goal with this experiment is to see how China’s air affects the rest of the world, especially with regard to climate change.

Instruments on the aircraft can measure the quantity of soot, temperature, humidity and the intensity of sunlight that permeates clouds and masses of smog, among other things. The data gathered will be combined with measurements being made by satellites and observatories on the ground that will track the transport of dust, soot and other pollutants that travel from Beijing and other parts of China in so-called “atmospheric brown clouds.”

“Black carbon in soot is a major contributor to global warming,” said

Ramanathan. “By determining the effects of soot reductions during the

Olympics on atmospheric heating, we can gain much needed insights into the magnitude of future global warming.”

DARRYN BENNETT

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