Polluters exposed by new eye in the sky satellite

What must it be like to live in the Siberian town of Norilsk on a “bad air day”?

They say the local smelting industry produces 1% of all the sulphur dioxide (SO₂) going into the air globally, something close to two million tonnes a year.

SO₂ is particularly unpleasant if breathed in; but it also washes out of the sky as “acid rain”, damaging plant-life and denuding the quality of water in streams and rivers.

The extent of Norilsk’s pollution problem is captured in remarkable new maps from Europe’s Sentinel-5P satellite.

The spacecraft was put up last year to track the gases responsible for dirty air – with SO₂ being one of the prime culprits.

Assembled in the UK and carrying the Dutch-led Tropomi instrument, S5P promises to be a game-changer in monitoring what’s happening in our atmosphere.

It has much higher resolution than its predecessors and acquires data on such a scale that its maps can be assembled very quickly.

“What’s very interesting about the Norilsk data is that they show you the different transport pathways,” explained Dr Nicolas Theys from the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA-IASB).

“You can see how the emissions follow the topography, moving around the mountains. People could use this information to better assess the environmental impact in this region.”

The SO₂ concentrations in the air over Norilsk are very large – one-hundred to a thousand times higher than what you would see anywhere in Europe, for example. The city’s Norilsk Nickel company has been told to cut emissions by 75% by 2023 (compared with 2015) or face huge fines.

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