Thursday, March 16, 2006

Public Relations


Today I am going on my first flight here in Mexico. We’ve had two days of working on the plane from 8 until 4, fixing minor issues, troubleshooting others, and running calibrations so that the data that gets generated is as accurate as possible. It’s been both hot and humid, but still bearable. A portable A/C unit with a 6” hose pumps cold air into the back of the plane, but it is debatable whether or not that affects those of us in the front when all the rear doors are open. At least it’s a nice cool place to go stand. Truthfully, I’ve been working on the outside more than the inside, setting up calibrators and fixing inlet problems: standing on a ladder or sitting on the ground in front of a rolling instrument rack box. All this makes me a little more visible to the press.

Each day there have been people from the local Mexican media coming by to interview, photograph and film us working. I’ve been both photographed and filmed while working on the outside of the plane at our pylon, which is likely one of the more interesting-looking parts of the plane. As one of only a few women working in and around the plane, I’m hopeful that a depiction of women doing this kind of work will help to continue to change the mindset about gender roles in science.

Unfortunately, one of the first publications printed soon after the plane arrived here two weeks ago allegedly said that a group of American scientists were in Veracruz to show how badly polluted it is here in Mexico. Not exactly the spin we were looking for. I thought it might be wise, therefore, to give a quick explanation of exactly WHY we’re here, and since it’s early and this is from my memory, please don’t quote me on the precise numbers:

In atmospheric chemistry, a lot of research has been done studying the air in remote, less-polluted atmospheres: polar regions, over oceans and in remote forests, where the chemistry is easier to understand and predict. Far less research has been done studying the chemistry of highly-polluted urban air. Currently there are approximately 10 megacities (cities with populations greater than ten million people) in the world. Some of these cities are in the US, but many of them are in less-developed nations. Over the next 20 years, the number of megacities in the world is expected to more than double, again with most of the megacities in less-developed nations. Mexico City happens to be a megacity that is close to the US, and thus logistically reasonable for a measurement campaign. What we are primarily interested in with Mexico City is what is happening in the air that leaves Mexico City: 1 day, 2 days, or even 3 days later. Under certain predictable and somewhat regular conditions, both satellite measurements and models have shown large concentrations of carbon monoxide exiting the city and moving to the northeast. The processing or aging of this “plume” is what we are studying. For instance, today we will be flying north from Veracruz and then making east-west tracks across Mexico north of Mexico City to measure a cross-section of this plume as it is moves out to the Gulf of Mexico. Combined with other aircraft and ground-based research stations, we are hoping to learn more about the driving factors associated with the chemistry of this urban plume.


I wrote the above this morning and tried to put it up on the blog, but thanks to the incredible demand for bandwidth here at the hotel, I was unable to do so. I've since been on that flight, and it was pretty incredible. Our rack puts out an unbelievable amount of heat, as does the rack right behind our seats, and halfway through the flight I pulled out a voltmeter and thermocouple and measured the temperatures around us. The air around my seat was about 38 deg C, and the air coming through the fan below my knees was 43. No wonder I was feeling rather warm...

So here is a little treat from our travels today. This is from somewhere southeast of Mexico City, taken as we were flying back across Mexico to Veracruz (the time-to-go-home! leg) :

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