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SUNY Plattsburgh Part of New Adirondack Collaboration

It’s a natural fit: Dr. Eric Leibensperger of SUNY Plattsburgh, Dr. Huiting Mao of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and Dr. James Schwab of the University at Albany live within a couple hundred miles of one another, with the Adirondacks roughly in the middle.

And each conducts research on regional atmospheric chemistry and share concerns about long-term climate change.

But it took a grant from SUNY 4E — one of six Networks of Excellence focusing on research in energy, environment, economics, and education — to jump start their joint work on Adirondack air quality and climate, a growing collaboration.

“With this first grant, we were simply aiming to form a partnership,” said Leibensperger, an assistant professor in the Center for Earth and Environmental Science. “SUNY 4E was the perfect vehicle, because it allowed the three of us to come together, spend two days discussing our research, and find out where our interests overlapped.”

“We focused on the North Country and Adirondack region, talking about issues that are not only important from a scientific perspective but also to policy makers, environmental planners and anyone living in the region. By the end of the second day, we’d begun outlining possible projects, distilling them into a single proposal and developing ideas for funding.”

Out of those discussions came more interest in studying the effects of wintertime wood smoke on Adirondack air quality, using portable, low-cost sensors to measure community exposure to pollutants, especially ozone, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds.

Based on work being done elsewhere in the Northeast, there’s already a clear connection between wood heating, air quality and asthma. What’s unique about the growing work of Leibensperger, Mao, and Schwab is their focus on the Adirondack region, where wood burning is the primary source of heat for many people and where recorded data on climatic and atmospheric conditions dates back almost 50 years.

“This is a remarkable, far-ranging project and a great example of the collaborations we’re building with 4E,” says Dr. Neil Ringler, vice provost for research at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, who serves as one of the co-champions of the network. “This is my 40th year with the college, and in the last few years of 4E, I’ve seen more synergy and more SUNY-wide activity than ever before. These are multidisciplinary projects that include at least two of the four themes in the network, and faculty members are really embracing the concept.”

Since submitting their first grant application, Leibensperger, Mao and Schwab have finished a second proposal that focuses more closely on using portable sensors to produce real-time air-quality data, details that will inform community decisions about environmental policy and help scientists analyze and model the long-term effects of anthropogenic climate change in the Adirondacks. In the upcoming months, they may also investigate the presence of mercury and persistent organic pollutants in the Adirondack atmosphere. The area is particularly vulnerable to contaminants traveling from distant coal-burning power plants. New opportunities with the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may also emerge.

Though the collaboration is just beginning, the three intend to keep working together.

“Until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of institutional support to break down the barriers between researchers at different SUNY schools,” said Schwab, a professor at Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, which operates the Whiteface Mountain Summit Observatory.

“With 4E, that paradigm is shifting. At the same time, there’s an increased interest at the EPA in community air monitoring and at NASA in miniaturizing sensors. There’s a convergence in what federal agencies are looking for and our group’s experimental interests. The questions we’re looking at as a team are going to be around for a long while, and I expect this collaborative effort to keep going into the future.”

As the collaborative effort draws on the unique strengths of each researcher, the work will grow in its reach as well.

“Each of us is very strong at what we do,” added Mao, an associate professor whose general research interests include regional tropospheric chemistry and intercontinental transport of trace gases. “And when the three of us work together, we become even stronger.”

Kenny Berkowitz of the Research Foundation for the State University of New York contributed to this story. 

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