In many developing countries, the absence of surface-based air pollution sensors makes it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to get even a rough estimate of the abundance of a subcategory of airborne particles that epidemiologists suspect contributes to millions of premature deaths each year. The problematic particles, called fine particulate matter (PM2.5), are 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, about a tenth the fraction of human hair. These small particles can get past the body’s normal defenses and penetrate deep into the lungs.
To fill in these gaps in surface-based PM2.5 measurements, experts look toward satellites to provide a global perspective. Yet, satellite instruments have generally struggled to achieve accurate measurements of the particles in near-surface air. The problem: Most satellite instruments can’t distinguish particles close to the ground from those high in the atmosphere. In addition, clouds tend to obscure the view. And bright land surfaces, such as snow, desert sand, and those found in certain urban areas can mar measurements.
However, the view got a bit clearer this summer with the publication of the first long-term global map of PM2.5 in a recent issue of Environmental Health Perspectives. Canadian researchers Aaron van Donkelaar and Randall Martin at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, created the map by blending total-column aerosol amount measurements from two NASA satellite instruments with information about the vertical distribution of aerosols from a computer model.