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Verifying the Reliability of Satellite Formaldehyde Measurements


Formaldehyde is a trace gas created in the atmosphere through oxidation reactions involving harmful organic chemical compounds emitted from transportation, industrial processes, and the use of organic solvents. Researchers are interested in studying atmospheric formaldehyde as an indicator of these organic compounds, and also because formaldehyde itself poses a threat to human health as a carcinogen. Satellite observations have been used globally as a source of formaldehyde distribution and concentration data since 1995. New instruments capable of taking these measurements were launched aboard the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-20 (NOAA-20) satellites in October 2011 and November 2017. A new validation study, partially funded by the Climate Program Office’s Atmospheric Chemistry, Carbon Cycle and Climate (AC4) Program, verifies that these measurements taken from space are comparable to ground measurements from NASA’s Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Composition Change. The results, published in Earth and Space Science, show that both satellites produce accurate data, but the instruments on the NOAA-20 satellite can detect pollution at smaller scales on Earth’s surface. The authors of this study, including AC4-supported researcher Caroline Nowlan of the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian, explain that this finer scale detection is better for understanding complex pollution sources and the behavior of small plumes. These results provide evidence that the satellite observations are reliable, but it is important to continue validation studies in the future to make sure the instrument performance does not change over time. This project was funded by AC4 in 2018 to understand organic compound oxidation in the atmosphere and to advance the use of satellite products to characterize formaldehyde pollution.

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