Science Wednesday: Breathing New Life into Air Quality Forecasting in Towns Big and Small

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I’m from a small town in Colorado. Not much industry, not many people. It was great growing up with clean air, clear streams, corn fields, cows, and wide open skies.

Now I work at one of EPA’s greatest facilities with scientists who specialize in understanding air pollution exposure. Because of this, more than ever, I pay attention to air quality.

EPA’s commitment to clean air has resulted in many excellent modeling and analysis tools that can warn people about unhealthy air quality — including “Ozone Action Day” alerts. Some people get these warnings from newspapers or their local weather forecaster, or from AirNow — a web-based clearinghouse that offers daily air quality index forecasts for approximately 300 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas. The AirNow database was developed in 1998 by EPA, NOAA, Environment Canada, and the U.S. National Park Service along with state, local and tribal air agencies.

Growing up, the same person who presented the local weather forecast on the evening news also served as the agricultural reporter. She did her best with the available information, but was clearly more skilled in reporting on cows and corn than the weather.

But I’ve wondered — do small-town citizens routinely get accurate information about air quality from their local weather forecasters? Not sure.

But they could.

It’s available through the National Air Quality Forecast Guidance, a tool developed by EPA and NOAA scientists that generates air quality forecasts — for the entire country.

SWMAPEPA researcher Brian Eder, and colleagues recently evaluated the guidance to see if it was — or wasn’t — providing local ozone forecasts every bit as accurate as those provided by AirNow. The results: the guidance delivers!

Eder’s paper, “Using National Air Quality Forecast Guidance to develop local air quality index forecasts,” in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, explains how people who aren’t trained air quality forecasters can use the guidance to generate localized information that can help people make smarter health decisions regarding outdoor activities on high ozone days.

The economy is such that hiring a trained air quality forecaster probably isn’t on my town’s list of priorities. Nonetheless, I hope towns big and small will discover, and use the guidance to better serve their citizens and protect public health.

About the author: Robin Baily is a writer/editor at EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

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