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Summer 2003 Vol. 3 No. 2

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Dispersion model of a hypothetical radiation release, courtesy National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center

Derailing Bioterrorism

Atmospheric Models Can Help Track Hazardous Materials

It's a nightmare scenario that keeps emergency planners and homeland security officials awake at night. Terrorists release a virus or toxic chemicals or detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in a major city. One of the first duties of emergency responders will be to determine how a plume of hazardous material may fan out or a virus may spread through a population.

As difficult as this task might be, atmospheric scientists have developed computer models that can help predict how hazardous agents disperse in the air. Used to track pollution or accidental releases from industrial sites, these models are also available to emergency personnel in the event of a chemical, biological, or radiological attack.

When a hazardous agent is released, scientists working with emergency responders can enter information about the hazard source along with atmospheric conditions -- such as wind and temperature -- into a computer and obtain an estimate of where and how fast the agent is moving in the air.

But emergency responders are faced with a confusing array of atmospheric models and often do not have a clear understanding of where to turn for immediate assistance, according to a new report from the National Research Council. The report also notes that most atmospheric dispersion models are not well-designed for complex topographical features or urban environments and do not sufficiently describe uncertainties that are part of any dispersion forecast.

The report is the result of a workshop held last summer in Woods Hole, Mass., where atmospheric scientists and emergency management officials discussed ways to improve the models as well as the communication between first responders and the scientists who run the models and monitor meteorological data. One suggestion that emerged from these discussions was that a single federal point of contact, such as a toll-free telephone number, should be established to immediately connect rescue personnel across the country with appropriate modeling centers.

Improving modeling and observational capabilities can be costly, so they should be tested in areas that are most likely to be targeted by terrorists. These resources could be used for many other purposes such as monitoring air pollution and forecasting severe weather, the report says.

"With a more effective application of available tools, and development of new technologies and capabilities, we can increase the confidence of emergency responders in addressing this critical national security concern," said Robert Serafin, chair of the committee that wrote the report.   -- Patrice Pages

Tracking and Predicting the Atmospheric Dispersion of Hazardous Material Releases: Implications for Homeland Security. Committee on the Atmospheric Dispersion of Hazardous Material Releases, Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2003, 114 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08926-3; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $27.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Robert Serafin, director emeritus, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colo. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Research Council.

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Copyright 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences