Alaska's air pollution is a warning sign for Arctic climates

Hidden in Alaska's beautiful interior is a dirty secret: Fairbanks is home to some of the worst winter air pollution in America.

Alaska's air pollution is a warning sign for Arctic climates

Fairbanks North Star Borough (which includes Alaska's second-largest city) routinely exceeds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's limits for particle pollution that could be inhaled and cause a variety of health problems.

Nearly 50 scientists from Europe and the U.S. visited Fairbanks over seven weeks to examine the causes of pollution and how they interact with the cold and dark climate. They also created a list of best practice guidelines for people who live in the circumpolar north.

They could use their findings to help city planners decide where to put power plants or smelters.

This is a more difficult task because climate change is pushing people away from areas that are becoming hotter towards northern regions, even though the Arctic is warming twice as fast than the rest of the world. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Fairbanks' average winter temperature has risen by 2.7 degrees F (1.5% C) since 1992.

Fairbanks is like Salt Lake City or other cities that are surrounded by mountains. Winter inversions are layers of warmer air which trap cold and dirty air and prevent it from dissipating. Although wind blows high, cold air keeps the wind from reaching ground level.

"Just like an old open-top freezer in a grocery store, that cold water just pools into that freezer and then air can just go right above the top," stated Bill Simpson, an atmospheric Chemistry professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute and UAF College of Natural Science and Mathematics.

Simpson, project leader, stated that "it's calm down there, and the pollution that has been emitted down below stays down here unfortunately."

This problem isn’t limited to the United States. Researchers in northern European cities will find the study of inversions of interest.

Fairbanks is home to a large amount of pollution from wood-burning stoves. These stoves are popular in an area that has low temperatures and wood prices. Other sources include vehicle exhaust, power plant emissions, and heating oil.

Owen Hanley was a pulmonary physician in Fairbanks for approximately 35 years. According to the retired doctor, Fairbanks' air pollution can cause permanent damage to the respiratory system and other health problems.

Additional chemicals can be released from pollutants such as smoldering wood fires and cars or coal, which can make them more dangerous than cigarette smoke.

Hanley stated that air pollution is a major factor in the development of dementia in adults. He also pointed out that young women who are pregnant with children have higher rates of miscarriages and preterm deliveries.

Fairbanks' power plants emit smoke plumes into the atmosphere. Researchers in the Alaskan Layered Pollution and Chemical Analysis Project are trying to determine if these plumes drift to the ground or remain high at the smokestack level.

In an effort to understand the formation of small particles and droplets, seven French teams took detailed measurements in Fairbanks' air. A Swiss team, however, used a tethered balloon equipped with special instruments to measure the characteristics of aerosols at 1,200 feet (365m) above ground. They were also able to measure the vertical profiles of their atmosphere with another instrument.

Roman Pohorsky is a doctoral student at EPFL in Switzerland, which is a science and technology institution. He said that "we are trying to understand the happening higher up" as ground-level data can be different.

Sarah Johnson, a graduate student at the University of California Los Angeles, conducted another experiment that used a special device for measuring trace gases and pollutants at different heights in air. The Long Differential Optical Abssorption Spectrometer is a special instrument that collects data by shining light from a parking lot to reflectors at different heights in Fairbanks. After receiving the information, it analyzes it.

She said that they are really interested in information about the location of pollution, as well as its movement.

Fairbanks community members also wanted to be part of the research. They wanted to find out how the air inside their homes is.

Fairbanks house was taken over by researchers who set up shop in the garage. They used tubes from the outside and inside to study the air.

Ellis Robinson, a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, stated that the majority of public health information regarding the dangers from air pollution comes directly from outdoor air.

Robinson stated, "But we really should be studying indoor air as much as possible."

People who live near coal-fired power stations or heating oil can be exposed to sulfur, which can cause major health problems.

Scientists are trying to understand how sulfur dioxide, which is mainly emitted as a gas, becomes particles in darker and colder locations.

Simpson, who is the project leader, stated that the research was not a regulatory project and that the team would share its findings with the EPA. This agency is responsible for determining violations of the Clean Air Act.

Since 2009, Fairbanks has not been in compliance with the air quality standards. The EPA is currently reviewing the latest plan of the state to bring Fairbanks into compliance.

They are expected to return the results to the university in the latter part of the summer. The findings will be shared with Fairbanks' Air Quality Division, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and residents. Residents will also have an opportunity to comment on potential solutions.

Simpson stated, "We can compare these situations and try to build a set kind of best practices to understand how pollution works in cold or dark places."


 

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