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SDSU researchers’ work allow for more accurate air quality forecasts

Fire emissions
The annual total PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter) fire emissions across the U.S., between April 2020 to March 2021.

The National Weather Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now produces current, first-rate forecasts of air quality conditions throughout the entire country—thanks in part to two researchers from South Dakota State University.
Xiaoyang Zhang, a professor in the Department of Geography and Geospatial Sciences and co-director at the Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence, and Fangjun Li, a research assistant professor in the Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence, have completed an algorithm and computer code which generate an hourly fire emissions product based on data from the new generation of NOAA’s geostationary satellites and polar-orbiting satellites.  

Xiaoyang Zhang
Xiaoyang Zhang, a professor in the Department of Geography and Geospatial Sciences and co-director at the Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence

“This new generation fire emissions product developed by our group has made significant contributions to NOAA’s mission of air quality forecasting,” Zhang said. 
Zhang’s and Li’s work in remote sensing began well over a decade ago, but a lion’s share of their efforts happened over past two years, stemming from the Disaster Relief Act of 2019, when NOAA, the NWS and National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service partnered to deliver improved forecasts of wildfire smoke impacts on air quality. After a lengthy series of testing, fixing, calibrating, retesting and recalibrating, they were able to deliver their algorithm product to NOAA. It’s now being used with NWS’s National Air Quality Forecast Capability model to give current forecasts on air quality conditions.
“This is a new product,” Li said. “It was very important that we were able to deliver something that would allow for accurate and timely forecasting on air quality conditions.”
For South Dakotans, air quality conditions and wildfire smoke may not always be at the top of mind, but that doesn’t mean the state is immune from adverse conditions and poor air quality. As Zhang remembers from last summer, smoke from wildfires in the Western U.S. and Canada caused Brookings to have hazy, smoky skies for a week or so, which resulted in “hazardous” air quality conditions. In states more prone to wildfires—like Oregon, Colorado and Washington—current conditions on air quality are essential, especially during wildfire season. Congress has gone as far as mandating that NOAA must provide air quality forecasting guidance. 
Emissions from wildfires are a source of harmful air pollutants, including smoke, various volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, and nitrogen oxides that form ozone particulate matter. According to NOAA, particulate matter is especially concerning because those particles—which can be about 30 times smaller than the diameter of an average human hair—can penetrate deep into human lungs and can cause various upper respiratory diseases. According to peer-reviewed research on the topic, even just two hours of exposure to high levels of smoky air can be harmful. 

Poor air quality is a significant risk to public health, which is why NOAA has made it a goal to provide accurate and current air quality forecasts. Previously, fire emission models were limited in their capabilities, but with the addition of NOAA’s new geostationary and polar orbiting satellites and the subsequent algorithm provided by Zhang and Li, hourly fire emission reports are available for air quality forecasts. This development is especially important as wildfires have become increasingly prevalent as the climate changes, Zhang notes. 

Fangjun Li, a research assistant professor in the Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence

“Wildfires have become a more severe problem across the U.S. because of climate change,” Li said. “In California, wildfires are a very big problem.”
So far in 2022, there have been 58,093 reported wildfires which have burned 7,153,698 acres, per the National Interagency Fire Center. Those numbers are up from 2021’s 48,179 fires that burned 6,520,053 acres. 
Even for places located away from the epicenter of large wildfires, smoke can get caught in the boundary layer of the atmosphere and push high concentrations of hazardous air across the entire country—exactly what happened in Brookings last summer. The forecasting of future air quality conditions allows the general public—particularly sensitive groups—to modify behavior and protect their health by reducing potential exposure to poor air quality.
The theory behind the algorithm was published in the Remote Sensing of Environment journal—the top academic journal in the field of remote sensing—earlier this fall. As Li explains, the next step is to now build upon the work they have already done. 

“We have provided the data to the National Weather Service’s models, and they were very favorable to that dataset,” Li said. “So now we would like to push for the next step and develop an algorithm for all of North America.”
“The next step after that is to start working on a global algorithm,” Zhang added.