California State University, Fresno researchers and geography students are getting a bird’s eye view of Central Valley air quality, hoisting a 16-foot-long orange blimp high above campus to measure ozone levels, which in high concentrations can cause heart and respiratory problems. Findings ultimately will be published and made available to policymakers.

The effort is significant because ozone readings done by other government organizations typically are taken at fixed locations, said Dr. Segun Ogunjemiyo, assistant professor of geography and the project’s co-principal investigator.

The blimp and its accompanying monitoring device, called a tethersonde, can ascend to 2,000 feet and monitor pollutants at various altitudes. It also reads air pressure, wind speed and direction, and relative humidity.

“There is no other research in the Central Valley that’s examining the ozone profile this way,” Ogunjemiyo said. “We’ll consider whether ozone is a result of activities in the Valley or whether it’s imported. This gives us the ability to see what’s coming in.

“The whole idea is to devise abatement strategies. If you have no idea how ozone is produced, you can’t develop any mechanisms to reduce it,” he said.

While so-called “good ozone” forms 10 to 30 miles above the Earth’s surface and helps screen out the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, bad ozone forms near the earth’s surface when ultraviolet light triggers a chemical reaction with pollutants emitted by cars and industry.

Ogunjemiyo, who has developed a new geography course on air pollution, has been taking readings since May. The Department of Geography acquired the equipment thanks to a $208,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The College of Social Sciences contributed an additional $80,000. Department chair Sam Omolayo is a co-principal on the project.

This summer, Ogunjemiyo and student researchers have been conducting ozone readings up to three times a week. Sunshine and hot weather lead to high levels of the pollutant.

Ogunjemiyo will continue to monitor ozone twice a week during the fall semester, after which readings will be conducted on particulates. That matter, which is generated by vehicles, power plants and wood burning, for example, is in its highest concentration in the winter.

Monitoring the balloon’s ascent on a recent morning, senior environmental geography major Michelle Himden said the hands-on experience is valuable as she prepares for graduate school.

“This will show that I can gather data and write research based on it,” she said. “It’s a better way to learn than just reading a textbook.”

Himden plans to use archival data and new statistics from the tethersonde to correlate Central Valley air pollution with mortality rates.

“The opportunities for the students are incalculable,” added geography lecturer Stuart McFeeters. “Field work is really where you learn the ins and outs of your craft. For students to come in and see this is a huge motivation.”