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NMSU researchers address regional air quality issues

Over the last four years, researchers at New Mexico State University have been involved in a bi-national study focused on pinpointing dust sources and evaluating the health effects of windstorms in the border region.


Photo of woman with shovel digging in dirt
With funding through the New Mexico Department of Health, researchers at NMSU have been involved in a bi-national study focused on pinpointing dust sources and evaluating the health effects of windstorms in the border region. (NMSU photo by David DuBois)

Funded through the New Mexico Department of Health?s Office of Border Health, this project combines expertise from NMSU, the New Mexico Environment Department, the University of Texas at El Paso, the Autonomous University of Juarez and the Desert Research Institute, to achieve a better understanding of the sources of air quality contaminants and how weather affects air quality.

?We happen to be downwind of a global dust hotspot. That?s largely responsible for turning our skies white during these major dust events,? Charlie Jackson, an NMSU applied geography graduate student involved in the project, said of the Lake Palomas Basin located in the northern Chihuahuan Desert.

In a region tormented by frequent dust emissions, NMSU has been involved in establishing a more comprehensive air quality-monitoring network to identify trends and locate areas in need of air pollution mitigation in southwestern New Mexico, west Texas, and northwest Chihuahua.

?The ultimate goal here is both in air quality management and public health,? said David DuBois, New Mexico State Climatologist and principle investigator for the Bi-National Air Quality Program.

Dust events often negatively impact respiratory health through airborne fungal and spore activity. As part of the study, the effects of various air contaminants on respiratory and cardiovascular health were evaluated in terms of local emergency room visits and hospital admissions in adults.

?We found some reliable correlations between emergency room visits and the air quality,? DuBois said. ?When we see elevated fine particles, we?ll see an increase in ER visits for respiratory problems. So, there is a connection between air quality and our health here.?

The next step was to identify which weather patterns cause those higher levels, what controls the fine particle concentrations and where they are originating.

?If I understand where they occur, it helps me understand what are the sources causing this,? DuBois said. ?The ultimate goal would be to mitigate the problem, right? Reduce the exposure, reduce the particulates, and that would hopefully reduce the ER visits. That?s the ultimate goal of air pollution management ? can we look into that and can we postulate ways that we can improve the health of people living in this area.?

After collecting climatic and meteorological data, researchers with NMSU?s Spatial Applications and Research Center (SpARC) used several open-source software and applications to analyze satellite imagery during dust events to determine the locations with the highest probability of dust generation.

?I quickly realized there were some very unique things going on with the use of satellite imagery that is taken during these major dust events,? Jackson said.

These incidents are referred to as ?synoptic dust events,? which are much bigger and typically last longer than the dust events common to Arizona, called ?haboobs,? which are convective.

?When all of these people started looking at satellite imagery of these dust events, they started to notice these point sources, and no matter what the size of these pixels in these satellite images, they were always seeing point sources,? Jackson said. ?So it seems like dust is coming from everywhere at once ?but in the satellite imagery, it?s coming from discrete places.?

This research has found that although playas ? flat, dried-up land ? generate large amounts of dust when influenced by precipitation and other environmental factors, several regional dust sources are actually originating from rangeland.

?This is really important in terms of mitigation,? Jackson said.

While dust emissions from playas in northern Chihuahua are difficult to control, the dust emanating from agricultural fields and rangelands dominated by grass and shrubs can be mitigated through the addition of organic matter.

DuBois explained that a few ranchers have already begun the mitigation process: ?Their goal is to re-vegetate some of the areas so they can boost the productivity of their range,? DuBois said. ?So what they?re doing is trying to bring up the organic content of the soil, put vegetation down, and totally revitalize some of those areas in Mexico, and they?re really working hard at it.?

DuBois and his team have also worked with the city of Las Cruces to test out mitigation techniques on highly-erodible areas lacking vegetation near Onate High School.

?I think it?s important to enable folks, to transfer that knowledge from research to application, and then application to solving the problems and making it routine,? DuBois said. ?Ultimately, over time ? hopefully we?ll see a lessening of the impacts of dust in Las Cruces or in El Paso. It?s nothing you can do immediately and solve a problem right away; it?s a long-term program, and hopefully this will keep going.?

For more information on the Bi-National Air Quality Program and to view the air quality forecast for the region, visit nmborderair.nmsu.edu.