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USF gets $16.5-million NASA grant

The University of South Florida is entering the big leagues of scientific research, thanks to the world's growing concern about ozone holes, greenhouse gases, global warming and pollution.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has awarded the university a $16.5-million research grant _ USF's largest ever _ to help monitor changes that pollution causes in Earth's atmosphere and oceans.

The 10-year grant is part of NASA's $11.7-billion plan to construct and send aloft its Earth Observing System, a network of observation platforms in space.

Chief researcher for the USF portion of the space research program is Kendall L. Carder, a professor of marine science at USF's St. Petersburg campus.

Carder was returning from a conference in New Mexico on Monday and could not be reached for comment. In prepared remarks, he noted how global environmental issues such as the depletion of the ozone layer suddenly have caught the attention of President Bush and his advisers:

"Our government's recent and rather sudden appreciation of the extent of our ozone layer depletion is a lesson in how quickly acute problems can attract attention and be attacked," he said.

On Friday, the Bush administration announced it was chopping in half the amount of time American manufacturers have to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from their production lines. The original deadline was at decade's end, but 1995 is the new target date to cease using CFCs, commonly used in refrigeration systems and in high-tech manufacturing.

International research points to CFCs as perhaps the biggest player in the destruction of the atmospheric layer of ozone. Scientists say the ozone helps keep down the amount of the sun's ultraviolet rays reaching Earth. As more ultraviolet rays reach Earth, expect a rise in the number of cases of human skin cancers and eye cataracts, they say.

In addition to ozone, the space observation program will track other pollutants, including the so-called greenhouse gases _ carbon dioxide, methane and others from burned fossil fuels _ believed to trap in the atmosphere heat that used to radiate away. Researchers say such a heat buildup could well lead to global warming and climate change.

USF officials said part of Carder's job will be to analyze the information gathered by the space stations and transmitted to Earth. Computers will enhance satellite images to make detection of certain pollutants easier.

But Carder will be more than an atmospheric watchdog. He hopes the information he gathers will let researchers undertake the long-range prediction of climatic changes.

"We need to be able to monitor what is happening now as well as predict the future," he said.

If all goes as hoped, for example, Carder and his colleagues could well predict the advent, duration and intensity of the El Nino weather pattern, the warming phenomenon in the eastern Pacific Ocean that tends to suppress hurricane formation but often portends much wetter weather from California to Florida.

USF is joining 15 universities and research facilities in the space platform program, including NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, the University of Miami, the University of Arizona and England's University College London.

Although the U.S. Global Change Research Program is scheduled to operate over the next 10 years, NASA officials say the project should last 15 years more so that enough raw information can be gathered to allow modeling of the climatic forces that shape Earth's environment.