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Penn State study provides more accurate estimates of smoke pollution


  • Katie Knol

The Kissing Tower in Hersheypark is shrouded in haze as smoke from Canadian wildfires moved into Pennsylvania on June 8, 2023. The smoke worsened air quality throughout Pennsylvania and other states in the Northeast. Jeremy Long - WITF News

The Kissing Tower in Hersheypark is shrouded in haze as smoke from Canadian wildfires moved into Pennsylvania on June 8, 2023. The smoke worsened air quality throughout Pennsylvania and other states in the Northeast. Jeremy Long – WITF News


A new study from Pennsylvania State University offers a different measurement system that uses wildfire forecasts and ground sensors to monitor the amount of smoke pollution and give people accurate and timely information.

Data shows that large smoke events from wildfires, like those that occurred in central Pennsylvania last year, could become more likely due to climate change, so researchers are looking for better measurement systems to keep people safe.

Manzhu Yu, the study's lead author, said popular websites such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF-Chem) model, which showed smoke intensity during last summer's wildfires, were often inaccurate – and typically underestimated the amount of air pollution.

By comparing the estimated predictions with the recorded measurements, she found that the levels were underestimated by 100 micrograms per cubic meter. A level of just 100 micrograms per cubic meter is considered by the US Environmental Protection Agency to be harmful to the health of vulnerable people.

Yu said the pollution level is usually based on population, taking into account the population density of an area and the concentration of pollutants. So if an area is densely populated, pollution is usually higher than in a less densely populated area, even if both have the same concentration of pollutants.

Yu said this measurement is useful for annual assessments that look at long-term exposure to air pollution from sources such as power plants or traffic, but not for short-term problems such as wildfires. It also ignores daily movement. People are on the move all day, so their exposure is not constant.

“But with wildfire smoke, it's more dynamic,” she said. “It would be more helpful to have a dynamic exposure level for a specific small area, like a city block. The dynamic exposure level could be very helpful for real-time interventions.”

Instead, the team from Pennsylvania State University put together a measurement system that included NOAA's broader smoke forecasts and hourly data from ground sensors. They also used anonymous cellphone data to track how people move between areas of varying pollution.

The researchers said their data method is more accurate because it includes more specific inputs and uses sensors that provide information hourly, allowing them to update statistics throughout the day.

In the event of wildfire smoke, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises people to keep windows and doors closed, stay indoors if possible, and limit strenuous activities.

Yu said accurate and regularly updated information can help people, especially those with underlying health conditions, take precautions and advocate for themselves.

“How can I tell my employer that I want a break even if I’m inside?” Yu said.

For example, she said that last year some daycare centers asked parents not to bring their children to daycare on days when air quality was particularly poor because it would be difficult for them to care for all the children with their different health needs.

She said she would like to conduct further research, particularly on environmental justice factors, showing how wildfire smoke can particularly affect marginalized communities.

Derek Mallia, assistant research professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah, agrees that further research on climate justice would be beneficial.

He said wealthy people are more likely to have air conditioning or central air conditioning or have a job that allows them to stay indoors when air quality is particularly poor.

Yu said she also plans to conduct multi-year analyses, focusing on the Northeastern United States and its populous cities.


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