Hidden in Alaska’s interior lies a dirty little secret: Fairbanks is home to some of the most polluted winter atmospheres in the United States.
Fairbanks North Star Borough, which is Alaska’s second largest, regularly exceeds the US Environmental Protection Agency’s limits on particle pollution that can be inhaled. This can cause a variety of health problems.
Nearly 50 scientists from Europe and the USA visited Fairbanks over seven weeks to study the causes of air pollution and how they interact with the city’s cold, dark climate. They also created a list of best practices to help people who live in the circumpolar north.
Their findings could be used to guide city planners in making better decisions about where to locate power plants or smelters for northern climates, and to guide lawmakers in regulating chemicals in fuel oil and other sources to reduce harm.
The task is even more challenging because of climate change, which is driving people away form hotter areas towards northern regions. This despite the fact that climate change is warming Arctic twice as fast the rest. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Fairbanks saw an average increase in winter temperatures of 2.7 degrees F (1.5 degrees Celsius) 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. Even though the wind blows high, the cold air keeps the wind from reaching ground level.
“Just like an open-top freezer in an old grocery shop, that cold water just pools into that freezer and air could just go right over it,” said Bill Simpson. Simpson is an atmospheric chemistry professor at UAF College of Natural Science and Mathematics.
Simpson, the project leader, said, “It’s calm here, and pollution that’s been emitted here stays down here unfortunately.”
The problem isn’t just limited to colder climates in the United States. Researchers in northern European cities will find the study of inversions of interest.
Fairbanks’ main source of pollution is from wood-burning fireplaces. They are common in an area that has low temperatures and high heating costs. Other sources include vehicle exhaust systems, 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 permanently damage the respiratory function and cause other problems.
The combination of pollutants from smoldering woodfires, cars, and coal can release additional chemicals that can be even more harmful than cigarette smoke.
Hanley said that “We know that there’s more dementia among adults due to air pollution, more kidney disease in young pregnant women, more miscarriages, preterm births and little children don’t get their full lung development.”
Fairbanks power plants emit plumes into the air that are emitted by smokestacks. Researchers from the Alaskan Layered Pollution and Chemical Analysis (ALPCA) are trying to figure out if these plumes remain high above the ground, or drift down to the ground where people live.
Seven French teams measured the air in downtown Fairbanks and made detailed measurements to understand how small particles are formed.
A Swiss team used a tethered balloon equipped with specialized instruments at 1,200 feet (365 m) above the ground to measure the characteristics and trace gases. Another instrument allowed them the ability to measure vertical profiles in the atmosphere.
Roman Pohorsky (a doctoral student at EPFL), a science and tech institution in Switzerland, stated that “we are trying to understand the what is occurring higher up” because ground level data could be different.
Sarah Johnson, a graduate student at the University of California Los Angeles, conducted another experiment using a special device to measure pollutants and trace gases at different heights in air.
The instrument is called a Long Differential Optical Absorption Spectrometer. It collects information by beaming light through a parking garage to reflectors at different heights in Fairbanks. After that, it analyzes the information that comes back.
“What we really want is information about pollution accumulating aswell as where it’s going,” she stated, adding that other areas could benefit from the research.
Fairbanks community members also wanted to know the atmosphere inside their homes.
Fairbanks house was taken over by researchers who set up shop in the garage. They used tubes from the outside and inside the house to study the air.
Ellis Robinson, a postdoctoral researcher from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said that the best public health information regarding the dangers of indoor air pollution comes primarily 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 that is emitted mostly as a gas, sulfur dioxide, turns into particles in colder, darker locations.
Simpson, the project leader said that although the research isn’t a formal regulatory project the team would be open to sharing the results with EPA. This agency is responsible for determining violations of Clean Air Act.
Since 2009, Fairbanks has been out of compliance for air quality standards. The EPA is currently reviewing Alaska’s most recent plan to bring the borough in compliance.
The university will receive the findings by the researchers by the end of summer. The findings will be shared with Fairbanks’ Air Quality Division, Alaska Department of Environment Conservation and residents. Residents will also have the opportunity to weigh in on possible solutions.
Simpson stated that “we can compare and contrast these situations and try to create a set of best practices to understand how pollution works in cold or dark places.”
(This story is not edited by Devdiscourse staff.