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Climate Change Could Create Unhealthy US Ozone Levels by 2050

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May 06, 2014 11:39 AM EDT
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Among a plethora of other pending environmental problems, a new study revealed that climate change could worsen summertime ozone levels in the United Stated as much as 70 percent by 2050 as temperatures warm.
(Photo : Reuters )

Among a plethora of other pending environmental problems, a new study revealed that climate change could worsen summertime ozone levels in the United Stated as much as 70 percent by 2050 as temperatures warm.

Already heavily polluted locations in parts of the East, Midwest, and West Coast could especially face unhealthy air during most of the summer, but everyone everywhere should be concerned.

"It doesn't matter where you are in the United States-climate change has the potential to make your air worse," the study's lead author Gabriele Pfister said in a news release.

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Not to say that nothing can be done about it. A sharp reduction in the emissions of certain pollutants would lead to dramatically decreased levels of ozone even as temperatures warm, authors added.

Increased atmospheric temperatures stir up chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight, and leads to ozone, the research notes. These gases come from human activities such as combustion of coal and oil as well as natural sources, like emissions from plants. Yet unlike ozone in the stratosphere, which blocks ultraviolet radiation from the sun and benefits our Earth, ground-level ozone and trigger health problems.

Those health impacts range from chest pain to congestion to coughing to shortness of breath, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

To determine just how unhealthy we can expect our air to be in the future, researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) looked at two scenarios. In one, unhealthy emissions of the aforementioned smog pollutants would continue at current levels. In the other scenario, emissions would be cut by 60 to 70 percent.

Current federal health standards limit concentrations of ozone to 75 parts per billion (ppb) over an eight-hour period, and in the former situation, ozone would exceed that limit by 70 percent by 2050. What's more, 90 percent of the time ozone levels would range from 30 to 87 ppb in 2050 compared with the present 31 to 79 ppb.

But there's still hope yet. Reducing emissions would mean ozone levels would range from 27 to 55 ppb 90 percent of the time.

"Our work confirms that reducing emissions of ozone precursors would have an enormous effect on the air we all breathe," Pfister said.

The findings are published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres.

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