MCHS chosen to participate in global air quality study |

MCHS chosen to participate in global air quality study

Ben McCanna

Roger Spears plugged a Tesla Coil into an outlet Tuesday morning, made a few adjustments and watched a blue spark take shape at the top of the device.

"Ozone has a distinct odor to it," the Moffat County High School science teacher said. "You can demonstrate that odor by using a Tesla Coil."

The smell of ozone is sharp, unpleasant and in high concentrations, it can be harmful.

Spears, along with five students from MCHS, will spend the next school year studying ground-level ozone concentrations in Craig. Their work will be included in a worldwide effort called the Global Ozone Project.

According to its website, the Global Ozone Project asks students from around the world to measure "ground-level ozone on a continuous basis and upload their data to an overlay in Google Earth. Measurements are made with high accuracy using sophisticated ozone monitors installed and maintained by the students and calibrated on a frequent basis using a transfer standard."

Spears said organizers at the Global Ozone Project invited MCHS to join the effort. In turn, Spears and several other MCHS science teachers handpicked five students to participate.

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"We were looking for interested, dedicated, outstanding students, who would be willing to share what they learned with other students next year," Spears said.

The teachers chose sophomores Matt Balderston, Ben East, Rose Howe, Hannah Kirk, and freshman Marianne Pressley.

The first order of business for the group was to attend a three-day regional conference last week in Denver. Gathered at the conference were 130 students from other schools from throughout Colorado, Wyoming and Kansas.

In Denver, the students got a crash course in using ozone monitoring equipment, weather monitoring equipment and the upkeep, and maintenance of both. They were also paired with a "sister school," the Jakarta International School in Indonesia, with whom MCHS will share data.

Then, through sponsorship by energy company Encana Oil & Gas Inc., the school received both pieces of equipment, Spears said.

"It was about $5,000 of equipment that they donated to our school district," he said. "This is getting instruments into the hands of kids, teachers and schools so they can do real time, real world science, using real data."

The sensors for the ozone monitor and weather station have been installed on the roof of Craig Middle School, and the monitors are located within the building. CMS was chosen because its roof has a more favorable pitch, among other factors, Spears said.

Ozone, Spears said, is both friend and foe.

"Ozone, at a higher level in the atmosphere, is very beneficial and needed to protect our planet," he said. "But, at ground level it can be a health hazard.

"Anything greater than 59 parts per billion of ozone in the air could be deemed a health hazard, especially for people with breathing problems, asthma or something like that."

Some ozone is naturally occurring, but excessive levels are the result from the burning of fuels, or by electrical currents, Spears said, citing automobiles as one source of ozone.

"About 30 percent of the total amount of ozone formed at the surface is from car exhaust," he said.

Exhaust contains a mix of several gasses, he said.

"In cars, you have nitric oxides, sulphur dioxides, carbon monoxide, and then you have VOCs, which are volatile organic compounds," he said. "When they react with sunlight, it forms ozone.

"So, as the temperature warms, and as the sunlight becomes more intense and more overhead, you get this spike in ozone every day."

Spears said most of the ozone decomposes into water vapor and other molecules overnight. However, ozone levels pick up again the next day during the morning commute, and the levels grow higher into the afternoon.

The project will track ozone levels throughout each day, over the course of a year, to determine if there are predictable trends and to be able to issue warnings for people who are at risk for breathing issues.

"Our goal here is to see how much we exceed this 59 parts per billion," he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Spears and the five students involved in the project met at CMS. The science teacher gave a brief tour of the new installation.

"Right now, it's reading 46.3 parts per billion of ozone at this particular time," he said.

Spears said it's too early to tell if ozone levels in Craig are normal or potentially hazardous.

"Everybody assumes it's going to be elevated because of our industry, but we might find out that maybe it's not," he said. "We don't really know, and we won't know for a year."

The students said that although the research will be an additional responsibility in their lives, they're ready for it.

Howe said the project fills a void.

"I happen to like the sciences, and there's not a lot of extracurriculars involving science," she said.

Kirk said the project will allow the students to do original research.

"This is more research than, let's say, a science class," he said. "This isn't out of the book. … You're figuring it out."

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