- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

Lackson Marufu spends his workdays soaring high above the Maryland countryside, taking the measure of pollutants that can make life miserable on the ground.

“We are seeing a lot of sulfur dioxide in the air,” he said into the plane’s speaker system on a hot June Monday. “There could be a coal-fired power plant in this vicinity.”

The University of Maryland atmospheric chemist monitors a bank of 12 air-measurement instruments crammed into the back of the twin-engine Piper Aztec.

Mr. Marufu and his pilot make one three-hour run over Western Maryland in the morning and another over the Eastern Shore area each afternoon.

The spreadsheet of data that appears on Mr. Marufu’s computer screen helps determine the level of ozone warnings residents of Maryland and the District hear on their radios almost daily. Meteorological ground stations throughout the region also contribute.

On this day, Mr. Marufu lamented a low “cloud deck” that prevented the airplane from doing a 300-feet-per-minute spiral to measure pollution along an entire column of air.

“What kind of visibility do you think we have?” he asked pilot Steve Tomlinson in the lilting accent of his native Zimbabwe.

Below, barns, roadways and trees spread across the landscape as the plane bumps up and down in turbulence. The cramped cabin becomes stuffy from a greenhouse effect of sunlight through the windows.

After the plane lands, Mr. Marufu proclaims the day “green,” which means ozone levels are low enough they represent no significant health hazard. Strong winds were carrying away many of the pollutants, he said.

The flights and pollution readings are funded by the Maryland Department of Environment, whose meteorologists determine which color code to assign the daily pollution warnings.

Red is the worst, meaning ozone levels are high enough they represent a significant health hazard for anyone who breathes the air.

Mr. Marufu reports his air-quality readings by e-mail to the Maryland Department of Environment at the end of each workday. The upper atmosphere readings help the meteorologists forecast pollution levels.

Mr. Marufu’s background before coming to the University of Maryland three years ago is drawn from different parts of the world.

He earned his doctoral degree in atmospheric chemistry at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Before that, he worked as an atmospheric researcher and teacher at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

He arrives at his first-floor laboratory in Jull Hall on the University of Maryland campus around 5 a.m.

After picking up his computer equipment, he drives to Frederick Airport, where he is met by a pilot.

Mr. Marufu warms up the equipment, checks the instrument readings and takes off between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.

The next few hours are taken up with gut-wrenching aeronautical maneuvers at different altitudes to collect data.

The airplane lands before noon for refueling while Mr. Marufu, any graduate assistants who accompany him and the pilots eat lunch. They return to the air for the Eastern Shore flights around 1 p.m.

Afterward, Mr. Marufu drives back to his lab at the University of Maryland, where he analyzes the data and reports it to the chief meteorologist.

The lab includes boxes on shelves, gas cylinders used to test instruments standing in several places and high-tech analyzing equipment displaying digital readouts.

After reporting his results for the day, Mr. Marufu, 44, drives home to Burtonsville, Md., and his wife and three sons.

“I like my job a lot,” he said. “I like the excitement from finding stuff out and figuring out trends.”

In one of the most notable examples of “finding stuff out,” Mr. Marufu and his team made one of the first accurate measurements of the extent to which coal-fired power plants contribute to pollution.

During the big Northeast blackout last summer, Mr. Marufu measured the difference in air quality during the day the power plants were not operating in Pennsylvania. The results were dramatic, including a 90 percent drop in sulfur dioxide, a 50 percent drop in ozone and increased visibility of 25 miles.

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