Air Quality Awareness Week: Thanks, George

About the author: Alison Davis is Senior Adviser for Public Affairs in EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning & Standards in Research Triangle Park, NC.

With our weather in North Carolina getting suddenly hot, I’ve been thinking more about how air quality affects my daily plans. And I realized that I’d never learned the nitty-gritty of what goes in to that “Code Orange” forecast I get when air quality is expected to worsen.

image of George Bridgers, AQI forcaster, sitting at desk with his computerSo the other day, I stopped by the N.C. Division of Air Quality (DAQ) to see George. George (his last name is Bridgers) is one of four meteorologists at the DAQ who issue the daily air quality forecasts that tell me whether ozone levels might make me wheeze – or whether I’m in the clear.

From what I’ve picked up during my years at EPA, I know that forecasters at state and local agencies nationwide use weather models, information on pollution and their own experience to predict the next day’s ozone and particle pollution levels. So I went to see George figuring a forecast would take just an hour or two.

Boy, was I wrong.

“It starts from the moment I wake up,” George told me. “Are there storms I didn’t expect? Is the wind blowing? Is it sunny?”

Turns out George doesn’t just issue the next day’s forecast; he also spends time checking to see if yesterday’s forecast held overnight. If anything changed — weather conditions being the most likely — he might need to issue an update. Plus, what happened yesterday affects air quality tomorrow. During a period of stagnant weather, for example, pollution can build up over several days – and the forecast can go from yellow to orange to red.

Once George is satisfied that yesterday’s forecast was good, he starts looking at a long list of tools to develop tomorrow’s forecast. Weather forecast models. Satellite images. Air monitoring data. Models that estimate how pollution travels on the air. It’s an impressive list that reminds that me of just how much the nearly 300 air quality forecasters across the country have to understand in order issue AQI forecasts every day.

But I’m most struck by George’s dedication. He still remembers sweating it out over a code purple forecast he issued years ago, for example – and how worried he was about getting it right.

So when you check your air quality forecast (and you will, right?), know that in nearly every state, there are people like George, using science, experience and dedication to help you protect your health.

April 27 – May 1 is Air Quality Awareness Week.