When the world first started focusing on the state of its atmosphere, the point was less the greenhouse effect and more the health of the land and those who lived on it. Air pollution -- in the form of sulfur dioxide, mercury, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and particulate matter, among other pollutants -- has long-term effects on crops, farmland, sea life and human beings.
One of NASA's longstanding and most successful areas of research is in observational technology; and as it turns out, these high-tech observation systems can open up a whole new world of tracking and understanding Earth's air quality.
One such piece of equipment is the High Spectral Resolution Lidar (HSRL). It's a lidar device, which is kind of like radar but instead of radio waves, it uses laser beams. Scientists use this NASA instrument, mounted on a small aircraft, to measure aerosols -- particles in the air.
In a recent study, NASA teamed up with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to measure smoke aerosols emitted during a wildfire in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in April 2009. As soon as the fire started to burn, scientists boarded a plane and started measuring the aerosols that were clouding the air.
The data gathered from NASA's HSRL technology will help the EPA gain a better understanding of how wildfires affect air quality and develop more effective standards and guidelines for keeping the air clean.
Up next is the environmental topic that's on everyone's mind.