Research Spotlight: The Pollution Equation
Sun Star Reporter
The problem with Alaska winters is, essentially, Alaska.
While many cities in the industrialized world have made nice with their pollution problems, Fairbanks has not. The problem is that, despite efforts by the Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB) to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards for air quality, Alaska’s climate refuses to cooperate.
“[Because] the problem that we’re talking about is in the [temperature] inversions in the winter,” said Javier Fochesatto, associate professor of Atmospheric Sciences at UAF.
Normally, the earth is warmer than the air above it because of a heat-transference process known as convection. Convection occurs when warm air rises into the atmosphere before cooling and sinking back to earth. This process removes air pollutants from the earth and disperses them into the atmosphere where they become less concentrated, and thereby less harmful, to human life below.
A temperature inversion occurs when, in valleys in particular, the air nearest to the earth becomes colder then the air above. This effect causes the cold air to become trapped by the warmer air current, which therefore limits the convection process. This limitation allows particulate pollutants (microscopic solids and liquid droplets that are small enough to easily enter the respiratory system) that would otherwise disperse into the atmosphere to simply collect in larger and larger amounts. When combined with bitterly cold temperature, this can result in something almost every Alaskan is familiar with: ice fog.
But how do the pollutants spread? The pollutants emitted (whether from power plant or Subaru) are primarily gasses that join up with liquid molecules. When these molecules leave a plume stack or tail pipe they almost immediately freeze. But, asks Fochesatto, what happens to the gas? Such a question is one he hopes to eventually answer.
Such a high-concentration of particulate pollutants can also result in health problems for those forced to inhale the same dirty air for weeks and months on end. According to the EPA’s website, such pollution has been linked to decreased lung function, asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart attacks, and death in people who suffer from heart or lung disease.
A recent study conducted by the State of Alaska’s own Department of Health and Social Services, analyzing data from Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, stated that all individuals in Fairbanks under the age of 65 who were exposed to higher levels of particulate matter between 2003-2008 were 6 percent more likely to have not only a stroke, but also respiratory tract infections than those unexposed.
Fochesatto, along with professors Nicole Mölders and Gerhard Kramm, are in the process of figuring out just what can be done about Fairbanks’ particulate pollution problem. While Fochesatto is focused on observing and measuring particulates in the boundary layer (where the cold and warm air masses meet), Mölders and Kramm are creating models using Fochesatto’s data.
Currently, the team (including six student researchers analyzing various pollutant causes) is looking into what are the biggest contributors to the FNSB’s winter pollution problem. According to Fochesatto, despite the borough’s small population (only 80,000), “the level of [particulate] concentration is very high compared with mega cities.”
“While particulates go away in big cities, in Alaska the winter essentially traps them,” he said.
What are the borough’s biggest contributors to the pollution problem? Not cars, Fochesatto said. Instead, Fochesatto lays most of the blame on plume stacks like the one located at the university’s power plant. Fochesatto said that the shear amount of pollutants they emit dwarf those of both homes and automobiles.
While Mölders agrees that automobile exhaust is not the biggest contributor to particulate pollution, she instead stresses that the problem arises from “little plumes,” like residential homes, many of which are heated by non-EPA certified wood stoves.
In June, the FNSB assembly passed a law that required any newly-installed wood stove be EPA-certified. The law also created a program to encourage borough residents to trade in their old wood stoves for EPA certified ones.
According to the 2010 Fairbanks Home Heating Survey conducted by Sierra Research, 17 percent of all FNSB residents use wood burning stoves as their primary source of winter heat.
One model that Mölders has created indicated that a borough-wide switch to EPA certified wood stoves would reduce the total amount of pollution emitted. However, as her own research shows, the change would be minimal at best, and she was quick to point out “that [such a change] will not be enough.”