Jenny was enjoying her first hike of the year during spring break. She was close to the summit of Mary’s Peak, the highest point in the Oregon Coast Range. Jenny looked forward to the spectacular view and being to be able to see the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east.

As she emerged from the tree-covered trail into the open meadow, Jenny noticed that the air was thick and hazy at the moutain's peak. She wasn’t able to see much more than a few miles in any direction. How disappointing! This wasn’t the typical Oregon coast fog. This was definitely haze.

In the summer, Jenny knew she could expect the occasional bad air day with car exhaust from Highway 101, Interstate 5, or dust from the Willamette Valley below causing poor air quality up at Mary’s Peak. She wondered what could be happening on such a gorgeous spring day.

View of Oregon Cascade Mountains from Mary’s Peak

Looking around, Jenny noticed someone working on an instrument attached to one of the buildings at the summit. She asked him what he was doing.

Robert collecting air samples

Robert, a graduate student working with Dr. Staci Simonich at Oregon State University, explained that he was collecting an air sample. “This air sampler pulls in about one cubic meter of air each minute," he said. "Over 24 hours we collect 1440 cubic meters of air. That’s about the volume of a 50 meter swimming pool.”

Showing Jenny the filter from the air sampler, Robert continued, “Any dust in the air is trapped on this filter." He explained that the chemical properties of organic air pollutants causes them to stick onto the filter's resin beads, tiny beads about a millimeter in diameter made of a plastic-type substance.

“We need to collect such a large volume of air because our research looks for very low concentrations of chemicals in the air. The more air we sample, the larger the amount of these trace chemicals we can collect on the filter and resin and then measure back in the lab.”

When Jenny asked why the air was so hazy, Robert said he didn't know….yet. “Today’s hazy conditions indicate that something unusual is going on. Typically the air is very clear with high visibility during the spring. I’m taking this air sample back to the lab to determine what chemicals are in the air. We can also look at weather data to see where this air came from,” he explained.

On her hike back down the trail, she thought about what could be causing the air to be so hazy and where it was coming from. She also wondered how pollutants get into the air and what Robert was going to do with his air samples.

Your Task

Robert and the rest of Dr. Staci Simonich’s research team have been doing research on the movement of chemicals in the atmosphere. They could use an extra hand in the lab. Before we get started, let's learn more about chemicals in the environment.

What's in the Air?