Tracking Where a Terrorist Cloud Could Move

December 11, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

CUNY RESEARCHERS are doing their part to help the city create an antiterrorism plan to deal with the release of hazardous airborne material. Last summer, New York City College of Technology was the hub of a field study investigating how these contaminants may disperse in the city’s streets and subways.

Tamarah Cunningham reports to professor Reginald Blake, a team leader of City Tech science, technology and engineering students assisting with the NYC Air Flow Study.

Tamarah Cunningham reports to professor Reginald Blake, a team leader of City Tech science, technology and engineering students assisting with the NYC Air Flow Study.

“We want to understand what may happen to a plume of radioactive, biological or chemical material if it were released in New York above ground and within the subway system. We investigated both where the plume may spread, and if we had to send first responders, to what locations should we send them first?” says City Tech physics professor Reginald Blake, who was a team lead researcher of the Subway-Surface Air Flow Exchange study.

The dispersion of a “dirty bomb plume” was studied by releasing a gas called Perfluorocarbon tracer (PFT). PFT is a chemically inert, colorless and odorless gas, with no known harmful effects. During three days in July 2013, PFTs were released within the city and the concentration of the gas was measured at different locations and within the subway system.

The measurements were carried out by a team of 90 students who traveled to parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan from 96th Street to Battery Park. The data the students collected will be used to optimize an emergency response following the release of hazardous materials and to refine evacuation plans.

TiesSUBWAYsiloTAGThe airflow study was expanded and synergized with Blake’s National Science Foundation Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences grant to create a three-week internship. Students were also taught about the geosciences, covering topics such as climatology, hydrology and meteorology.

“They got to experience real world, practical service learning by going out and taking these measurements. But then they got more — they got a baptism into the exciting and dynamic nature of the geosciences.” The students learned about geophysics, participated in workshops and wrote a research papers on geoscience topics, such as fracking, hurricanes and heat waves, says Blake.

While students had the opportunity to participate in a study to make the city safer, they will never know the results of their research, as it will not be shared publicly Blake says. “When analyses are complete we won’t know what the data show, and it’s something that certainly can’t be discussed since it was done with the Department of Homeland Security,” says Blake.

The study was commissioned by the NYPD and funded through a $3.4 million Department of Homeland Security Transit Security Grant. City Tech researchers worked in collaboration with scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, who will analyze the data. A similar study was conducted in New York City in 2005 on a smaller scale when a trace gas was released on the streets of Manhattan.

“It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when’ we will suffer another terrorist attack,” says Blake. “We have 8.25 million people in New York City, and our subways are used heavily. We want to minimize casualties and minimize the damage that could be done. We’re worried about chemical weapons in Syria, well, we need to start thinking about chemical weapons being released here. We’re just being proactive to figure how best to prepare for that situation,” says Blake.