Honrath Receives 2006 Research Award

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

Richard Honrath, whose work has helped shed light on some of the fundamental processes behind atmospheric change, has been selected to receive Michigan Tech's 2006 Research Award.

Honrath, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, was most recently honored for his efforts to establish--and then give away--the PICO-NARE atmospheric research station in the Azores.

Honrath spearheaded the construction of PICO-NARE (stands for Pico International atmospheric Chemistry Observatory-North Atlantic Regional Experiment) in 2001. The sauna-sized observatory sits atop Mt. Pico, the highest point in the Azores and the only spot in the mid-Atlantic where the air is high enough to escape the effects of the ocean environment.

This has made it a perfect place to measure pollution drifting from North America. Since PICO-NARE was built, is has been generating a stream of data on atmospheric pollution, and in its five years of existence, two surprising discoveries have come to light.

First, far more of the greenhouse gas and air pollutant ozone is being generated by the population centers of the Atlantic Seaboard than previously believed. And secondly, forest fires play a much greater role in atmospheric chemistry than anyone imagined.

Honrath and his colleagues measured large spikes in carbon monoxide drifting over the Azores and determined that they had originated in wildfires from as far west as Alaska and even Siberia. The fires had generated even more CO than activities such as industrial pollution and tailpipe emissions.

"You might think that it's amazing that natural things can pollute, but these wildfires might not be strictly natural," Honrath says. "Fires have increased, and this increase is probably related to global climate change, because the summers are hotter."

Research Chemist David Parrish, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which funded PICO-NARE, praised both the quality of Honrath's work and the extraordinary efforts he made to engage in it.

"Richard literally is willing to go to the ends of the world to conduct the science that he views as important," Parrish said. Despite the obstacles posed by the PICO-NARE site--"no road access, no electrical power, no facilities of any kind"--Honrath created a remarkable observatory and equally remarkable research, he said. "Richard's data sets and resulting papers have had a strong impact on our understanding of long-range transport of air pollutants," said Parrish.

In June 2006, Honrath arranged to transfer ownership of PICO-NARE to the Azores, with the goal of establishing it as a permanent observatory.

Scientists anticipate that the station will eventually be part of Global Atmospheric Watch, a United Nations-sponsored network of more than 20 observatories worldwide that provide high-quality atmospheric data.

Before his work on the Mt. Pico summit, Honrath focussed his attention on an even colder, lonelier place than Mt. Pico: Greenland, where his work sparked an entirely new line of scientific inquiry.

"Richard has made a very high impact on the field of polar atmospheric chemistry," said Eric Wolff, principal investigator for climate and chemistry at the British Antarctic Survey. "Indeed, I would say that he spawned an entire industry."

Honrath and his colleagues discovered that the snow in Greenland was giving off the key ingredients of smog: NO and NO2, collectively known as NOx.

"We were measuring way higher than what we expected," Honrath recalled. "We found two to three times as much NO and NO2 as we should have, and 10 times as much in the snow."

After leaving the tailpipe, NOx turns into nitric acid in the atmosphere and then precipitates out in rain or snow. Thus, when Honrath and his team started studying Greenland's snow and ice, the scientific community expected the air to be free of NOx and the snow to contain nitric acid.

As it turns out, they found NOx coming out of the snow instead. Sunlight reacts with nitric acid in snow and turns it back into NO and NO2, changing what was thought to be a permanent sink into a source of new NOx.

And that doesn't happen only in Greenland.

"We did a study in Ahmeek," Honrath said. In the Keweenaw as in Greenland, snow was giving off NOx too, by the same process.

NOx is highly reactive in the atmosphere, so the team's discoveries have precipitated numerous other studies. "It gets chemistry going in the atmosphere that's the same as in a place where you have tailpipes. It's become a whole field that has taken off," Honrath said.

As for receiving the Research Award, "It's really nice to be recognized for what you work hard on," said Honrath. "Everyone has been really appreciative of everything we've done, and it's great to know that people think you're doing something useful."

Neil Hutzler, professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, nominated Honrath for the Research Award. "Richard has been a leader in promoting research at Michigan Tech, and the research he's done has given us international visibility," he said. "His work puts him in a pretty select group of scientists."

"He also contributes to the department, and he provides leadership to new faculty, particularly regarding what it takes to conduct a successful research program," Hutzler added. "Plus he has an excellent group of students working with him, and he gives them quite a bit of responsibility. Richard is an example of a good researcher who is also a good teacher."

Honrath said his success is due in part to the nature of Michigan Tech. "Working among departments is easier here than elsewhere," he said. "That's why the atmospheric sciences program is so successful."

Honrath came to the university in 1992. Since then, he has received over $3.1 million in support of his atmospheric chemistry research program. He has authored or coauthored 36 journal publications, which have been cited over 1,000 times; in particular, his 2002 paper on the photochemistry of the Greenland snowpack was named a "hot new paper" by the research analysis firm Thomson Scientific.

The Research Award carries a cash honorarium of $2,500.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.