Climate Corner: Wildfires and air quality monitoring
Jul 22, 2023
Have you noticed hazy skies or the news about the Canadian wildfires, which are causing air quality concerns here in the Mid-Ohio Valley. Wildfires are intensifying and can be tied to 88 major fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers according to the recent publication “Quantifying the contribution of major carbon producers to increases in vapor pressure deficit and burned area in western U.S. and southwestern Canadian forests” (https://tinyurl.com/589vt2cb) The article focuses on the vapour-pressure deficit (VPD) or the amount of water the air is holding vs how much it could hold.
The VPD is a metric for understanding wildfires. Wildfires we may be thinking about may be hundreds of miles away, but these are impacting our lives and health by decreasing our air quality in Ohio and West Virginia and we’ve contributed to their intensity through fossil fuels.
Now wildfires happen nearby, it was only the end of 2022 when the Wayne National Forest’s 1,300 acres burned due to a wildfire. Understanding that wildfire intensity is a result of human behavior is important to understanding what steps we need to take to reduce our impact on the climate and our forests. Not only would reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere contributed by humans, but working to ensure we have clean water and combat invasive species. (More: https://tinyurl.com/2p9cwfds).
We are living in a time where we experience the effects of massive wildfires far and near, we should have tools to help with early detection and make informed decisions for our health. A starting point for our health is EPA AirNow (https://tinyurl.com/w4m3sfvm), but we can help improve the data with local sensors and identify point sources of air quality issues. Many of us may turn to our favorite weather station, website, or app to find out the air quality or the weather forecast. These are good for a rough idea, but with more local data it would change what kind of predictions, decisions, and models we can make.
Many primary monitoring stations may be miles away from your house or location of interest, which means we make the best prediction based on what we know and data. Often the sensors for the data to help make these predictions are based at airports, hospitals, and other sites with regulatory monitoring requirements. We rely on modeling and predictions based on math and statistical estimations to fill in the areas between monitoring stations along with known data about the environment (wind, sun, etc).
The site and app Weather Underground has been filling in their models with low cost sensors to get more local data readings. For instance with personal weather stations, rain, temp, humidity, wind speed and direction are some of the captured data points which can be more local and measured. More important to the current wildfire situation are the particulate sensors to understand the air quality for our breathing. With a rise in popularity of low cost sensors (very relative), PurpleAir sensors can be integrated with WUnderground.
There are only a few PurpleAir sensors in Washington and Wood County, none in Parkersburg and one in Marietta. PurpleAir sensors are not the only low cost air quality sensors out there, but they are the largest deployed globally, studied by the US EPA and contribute to EPA studies/services. The newer Flex model includes an ozone sensor as well as particulate counts. If you enjoy being outdoors, maybe consider sponsoring a low cost sensor for the community at your favorite outdoor location and help build the sensor network for the Mid-Ohio Valley. Detect smoke and fires, high pollution events, share data for better science models and analysis.