August 12, 2014 in City, Region

WSU’s new smoke forecast system gets workout

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Washington State University research scientists have devised a forecasting model that can predict air pollution.

Described as the nation’s first high-resolution, Web-based air quality forecast system, it’s been getting a workout this summer as out-of-control wildfires continue sending thick smoke billowing into the Pacific Northwest sky.

The predictions can be found on the AIRPACT website, which creates forecasts for different types of pollutants, including smoke particles known as particulate matter (PM) 2.5 because of their tiny size of less than 2.5 micrometers.

In Central Washington on Monday, air quality agencies were advising the public to limit outdoor activities. Ellensburg had so much smoke Monday that the air quality was rated as very unhealthy and bordering on hazardous.

The AIRPACT forecast calls for continued air quality problems, but areas with the worst pollution should see improvement by Wednesday. The forecasts, which are made each morning, comprise two-day periods.

Joseph Vaughan, an associate research professor, said the forecasting tool has been developed and refined over the past 13 years. It was developed in WSU’s laboratory for atmospheric research.

The tool uses a sophisticated weather forecasting model developed at the University of Washington, and combines that with information from wildfires or other pollution sources.

The predictor determines the amount of lift a smoke plume gets from the heat of the fire. The more lift in the smoke plume the less likely it will leave air pollution near the ground.

Higher air pressure holds smoke closer to the ground while a cold front can blow the smoke horizontally across the landscape.

A Monday morning temperature inversion in Central Washington left cooler air settling near the ground, trapping pollutants. It was blamed for high pollution levels.

Vaughan said the predictor was developed through assistance from the federal government. It is being used by local, state, federal and tribal agencies to watch out for air pollution episodes.

AIRPACT stands for Air Indicator Report for Public Awareness and Community Tracking.

In addition to the pollution predictor, WSU staff is maintaining a Washington smoke blog that can be found at wasmoke.blogspot.com.

Health officials are warning the public that high levels of smoke are hazardous. Symptoms include dizziness, headache, difficulty breathing, coughing, excessive congestion and nausea. 

Running a furnace fan to filter indoor air is one step that people can take. Higher-efficiency filters can remove smoke particles from indoor air. Experts also recommend using an air conditioner’s recirculating mode to reduce pollution indoors.


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