Cleaning Up Korea’s Air

By Matt A. Barr

Seoul, South Korea has a unique air quality problem. More often than not, a persistent haze colors its skies a dull gray and quickly crowds out the blue sky. Many highly industrialized cities experience these conditions, especially those whose economic progress developed too fast for environmental policy to keep up.


Air pollution is a serious problem not only in Seoul, but across much of the Korean Peninsula.

Efforts to bring emissions under control were implemented in 2005 by a Special Act of the South Korean government. In particular, PM10, NO2, and VOC emissions were targeted by the legislation with the goal of reducing them to ½ of the levels measured in 2001. This was to be accomplished by 2014, but observations and measurements of air pollution have deviated significantly from what many computer models predicted. While PM10 concentrations are down, NO2 and O3 concentrations have gone up and consistently remain above prescribed levels, despite regulatory actions taken within the past decade. The question is why?

Enter EAS atmospheric chemist Dr. Greg Huey. This summer, Dr. Huey and his team of researchers traveled to Korea to help answer this question. For six weeks, he and his group flew several missions on NASA’s DC-8 airplane, an aircraft outfitted with a 25,000-lb payload of instruments used to monitor air pollutants at a variety of altitudes. The data they gathered, along with measurements from ground stations and satellites, will be used to get a better understanding of air pollution sources in the Seoul Metropolitan Area (SMA). In doing so, their data is expected to help characterize air pollution in new ways and potentially transform how air quality is monitored and improved for decades to come.


A look inside NASA’s DC-8 aircraft outfitted to carry a 25,000 lb science payload.

In conjunction with KORUS-AQ and other Korean government programs established to improve SMA’s air quality, NASA is developing a series of Geosynchronous satellites that will be capable of measuring air pollution with much greater resolution than what is possible with current satellites.  Right now, the orbits of satellites that monitor air quality pass over a specific region during a small window of time. This significantly limits their ability to obtain a full picture of how air pollution changes in that region. That window of time will broaden with the new generation of satellites, scheduled to be launched by 2020. The combination of data from the new satellites, ground station monitors, and in-flight observations is expected to reveal a clearer picture of Seoul’s pollution sources and perhaps answer questions about why environmental regulations have not led to the expected improvements in Seoul’s air quality.


Geosynchronous satellites orbit the earth at fixed locations. These satellites will provide a much clearer picture of pollution sources and distribution across Korea.

Two undergraduates, Maddi Frank and Maddie Nisi, accompanied Dr. Huey on his trip. They worked to help calibrate and maintain the instruments, two of which were mass spectrometers designed and built by Dr. Huey’s lab. These mass spectrometers sample air during the flights and analyze it in real time to measure a series of important pollutants. Some of the discoveries made during the flights contradicted widely-held assumptions about where much of the pollution was coming from. These findings have yet to be published, and they will remain so for our post here, but the take-away is that new scientific discoveries were unfolding before everyone’s eyes. For Maddi and Maddie, that brought a certain element of excitement to what was already the trip of a lifetime.

Maddies in flight suit on wing of NASA DC8

Maddi Frank and Maddie Nisi in their flight suits preparing for a flight in NASA’s DC-8 research plane. Photo courtesy of Maddi Frank.

Visit the EAS website and Dr. Greg Huey’s research page for more information!


Students in the Field Pt. 3

For this episode of Students in the Field, we spoke to undergraduate Riannon Colton about her experience on the research vessel R/V Falkor, operated by the Schmidt Ocean Institute. Riannon accompanied Dr. Annalisa Bracco to the South China Sea for research into the nutrient load being deposited by the Mekong River into the Sea. Take a look at Riannon’s blog to go deeper into her adventures at sea.


Researchers boarding the R/V Falkor from Nha Trang, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Riannon Colton.

1.) What year are you?

I am a rising 3rd year.

2.) What was the purpose of your research in Vietnam?

The purpose of the research is to study and measure nutrient fluxes from the Mekong River into the South China Sea. The Mekong River’s impact on the local ecosystem isn’t well understood at the moment, but it clearly plays an enormous role. Currently, there are plans to construct several dams along the length of the river which will change how the river’s nutrients are transported. Gathering data about nutrient fluxes now means that we can better understand the nature of those changes once the dams are in place.

3.) What was your specific role on the trip?

At the outset, my specific role on the trip was to assist with sample collecting and processing. I spent a lot of time collecting seawater from a CTD sensor – a sensor that collects data about the conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water in a particular location. However, after constantly asking everyone if they needed assistance on anything when I had nothing to do, I got assigned to the plankton net tows. I would complete the net tow with Andreas Lovotny, a Swedish Ph.D. student, and then he would show me the specimens we’d just collected under a microscope. I learned how to identify different phytoplankton thanks to his expertise.

At one point, I overheard one of the crew members talking about XBT’s, which caught my attention. I asked if I could learn how to launch one, and the answer was yes. XBT’s are another tool used to measure ocean temperature. These measurements are taken globally and, with several decades of data available, they provide a picture of the changing marine climate.

Whenever anyone needed help, I would assist them with their work, educating myself in all parts of the multidisciplinary ocean science team. Mónika Naranjo-Gonzalez, the ship’s journalist, decided to add to my list of things to do by giving me and another student small but fun tasks that taught us about communicating science to those who do not pursue science. From this experience, I was able to author of one of the cruise log entries on the Schmidt Ocean Institute website.


Riannon collecting seawater from the CTD Sensor aboard the R/V Falkor in June 2016. Photo courtesy of Riannon Colton.

4.) Did anything unexpected happen while you were on the trip? If so, how did you deal with it?

When I boarded the R/V Falkor, I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew very little about biology, let alone marine biology. During the first days of the expedition, I met Andreas and pretty much became his assistant, helping him collect and label samples from the CTD.

By the end of the trip, however, I’d also learned how to tie boating knots, steer a research vessel, put on fire safety suits as well as other protective gear, extinguish ship fires, communicate with other crew members over the radio, and how to correctly paint a ship. I was also given the task of recording salinity measurements as the ship sailed back and forth over the river plume boundary. The captain decided that I would steer the ship while others were recording the numbers too. Thankfully, I was able to personalize my research experience by participating in every aspect of the expedition.

5.) How did you come to be involved in Dr. Bracco’s research?

Dr. Bracco sent an email to all of the EAS students announcing an opportunity of a lifetime to which I responded with interest. There was a personal interview with Dr. Bracco and afterwards, she had was write 3-4 sentences on why we wanted the position.

6.) What would you say to any incoming freshmen or transfer students who might be considering whether or not to do research?

DO RESEARCH! Research is super fun, eye-opening, educational, makes you feel like a mad scientist, and presents wonderful opportunities of a lifetime.


Opportunities of a lifetime await the Georgia Tech Researcher. Riannon Colton aboard the R/V Falkor in the South China Sea, June 2016. Photo Courtesy of Riannon Colton.

7.) Do you have any plans for doing research with Dr. Bracco or other faculty for the remainder of your time at Tech?

I am currently working with aerospace professor Dr. Brian Gunter on the RANGE team in designing a CUBESAT satellite to accurately access planetary topography under a NASA grant.

I also plan to take any exciting arising opportunity in the research field. I absolutely love research!