Researchers at WSU able to predict levels of air pollutants

PULLMAN, WA - Over the last week, the Palouse's beautiful view of the rolling hills disappeared into a haze of smoke due to all the wildfires in the region.

Atmospheric researchers at WSU are able to analyze the air in Pullman to find out exactly what's polluting it.

"This was actually over last weekend when we had the brunt of that smoke episode," said WSU Atmospheric Science grad student Graham Vanderschelden.

The blue line represents benzyne, a pollutant that typically comes from vehicle exhaust. It's relatively low compared to the red line, which represents formaldehyde, a pollutant that is associated with smoke from wildfires.

"It's pretty concerning to me because I went on a long run on Friday morning and looking at the concentrations it's like well, maybe I shouldn't have been out there," said Vanderschelden.

Not only do they measure the pollutants, they can also predict air pollution levels using the AIRPACT computer model. Every night, AIRPACT combines information about various pollutant levels with a weather forecast from the University of Washington to predict air pollution levels across the region for the next 64 hours.

"It's kind of a kitchen sink, everything including the kitchen sink kind of model," said WSU Professor of Environmental Engineering Brian Lamb.

AIRPACT provides information about many different types of pollutants. Lamb showed me that in some areas like Pullman, their predictions are fairly accurate. But cities like Lewiston are harder to predict because it's in a valley. Right now the PM2.5 measurement is the most attention grabbing.

"Those are very, very tiny particles," said Lamb. "You can't see them except for when there's a lot of them, like we see with smoke. But they're the particles that are regulated for their health impact because you can breathe them deeply down into your lungs where they can cause problems."

Lamb has been developing and improving AIRPACT since 2001. AIRPACT-Three is the version that is currently in use, while the fourth is being perfected. The AIRPACT-Four map will have three times the resolution, and it will be even more accurate.