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A NASA study of aircraft pollution in the North Atlantic Flight Corridor has shown that planes may have already increased nitric oxide levels, a precursor to the pollutant ozone, by 70% in the upper troposphere.

Researchers working on the Subsonic Assessment Ozone and Nitric Oxide Experiment (SONEX) measured nitric oxide levels in the Corridor in late 1997. The resulting data has allowed, for the first time, the construction of three-dimensional models for detailing nitric oxide and ozone perturbation from aircraft emissions.

The study’s authors identified several areas that require more study before the full effect of aircraft emissions on weather patterns and global warming is understood, but they did conclude that “increased aircraft nitric oxide emissions in the future will likely lead to additional ozone formation but the rate will vary greatly depending on the state of the atmosphere.”

Priority areas for further study include:

  • further SONEX-like missions collecting data in all seasons, including summer
  • capacity for improvements to instrumentation to measure CH3OOH, HCHO, HNO3 and NO2
  • the use of synthetic tracers to measure the transport of pollution over long distances in the upper troposphere.
  • the role of lightning in the production of nitric oxide in the upper troposphere and lowermost stratosphere
  • the chemical interactions of reactive nitrogen and hydrogen species with visible and non-visible cirrus clouds.

SONEX found that aircraft nitric oxide emissions contributed approximately 10% of ozone during October/November 1997 in the study’s area.

Details of SONEX research and other data regarding aircraft emissions’ impact on ozone levels and cloud formation will be published in the 15 October edition of Geophysical Research Letters.

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