Updates from Environmental Experts

Air Pollution Reporting on California Wildfires

Julie Ach

October brought disastrous wildfires to California, affecting air quality levels in many regions across the state, including the San Francisco Bay Area.

In areas of both northern and southern California, prized for their pastures, rolling hills and world wineries, locals and tourists alike have enjoyed fresh air. Recent wildfires in the Napa area have burned hundreds of thousands of acres.

Wildfires like these have devastating results in terms of casualties, property loss and damage to land, but also for air quality. The significant air pollution the wildfires have created over the Bay Area has been reported widely, but not all sources showed the whole picture. Here’s how BreezoMeter’s algorithm calculated and predicted the pollution dispersion accurately.


Smoke 101: What is PM10?

Smoke contains particulate matter that is relatively large when it comes to air pollution, PM10, particles with diameters of 10 microns or smaller. Smoke, unlike other pollutants is visible and odorous, whereas other pollutants aren’t. So a lot of people following the levels of air pollution were confused when they checked local sources to find that the air quality didn't look so bad in regions that smoke was visibly there and that they could smell. Why is that?

Here’s the thing: there are not many PM10 sensors providing data, and specifically not very many in the California Bay Area. Since PM10 was accounting for the majority of the air pollution, but was not being reported by local monitoring stations, the air quality seemed fair in many reports. So how did the BreezoMeter algorithm pick it up?

BreezoMeter’s algorithms make use not just of air quality sensors at monitoring stations around the globe, but also integrate weather, traffic, and satellite data to create the most complete picture of location-specific air quality in real-time. Satellites can measure the sun’s rays and see how they bounce off the earth, affected by the pollution in the air, including all of that large PM10 produced by the wildfires. Based on how the rays bounce back to the satellites, we can indirectly know what is in the air. While government monitoring stations are more accurate than satellites, there are simply not enough of them, and this is the reason that satellites can offer higher resolution. Using satellite data, BreezoMeter is able to provide businesses and individuals accurate information about the air they are breathing, in real-time, to make smarter decisions.

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Related: Learn what to do in case of a nearby fire with the fire pollution safety checklist from Nir BenMoshe, PhD & environmental scientist at BreezoMeter.

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