Meet one of the scientists monitoring air quality
By Megan Plete Postol
The New York State Department of Conservation’s Division of Air Resources operates a robust statewide program that measures and monitors levels of outdoor air pollution and provides an Air Quality Index (AQI) forecast for some pollutants that can be harmful to human health and current air quality measurement data.
DEC Air Pollution Meteorologist Bob Gaza (BG) caught up with the Adirondack Explorer (AE) to break it all down.
AE: What does the DEC Division of Air Resources do?
BG: We wear a number of hats in our group. We forecast ozone and also fine particles for all of New York State on a daily basis. We have eight forecast regions. We use AQI, which is a unitless index where 100 is equivalent to the state and federal standards. It is a health standard, so that when we reach 100 we are starting to have pollution impacting the health of some of the weaker members of our society that are susceptible to the impacts of ozone and fine particles.
We also do a statistical analysis in preparation for our forecast. We compute 10 year averages of ozone and fine particles. We monitor and compute trends of ozone and fine particles as well. That is a DEC success story, by the way. The precursors to ozone, such as VOCs and nitrogen dioxide, have been on the decline for decades now, starting with the Clean Air Act and further additional policies that have been implemented by DEC. We are headed in the right direction there.
Additionally, we do evaluations of our forecasts statistically as well. We also forecast daily weather for all of New York state, which includes extended forecast. We focus on severe weather, although not exclusively.
There are those from DEC that may be going out to monitor air pollution and they need to know what the weather conditions are, so they call us. Other clients inside DEC include the division of water: the flood protection people, the beach erosion people, emergency response inside DEC, and more.
We also have clients outside of DEC, including emergency management and the department of transportation (DOT), and other organizations, that use our forecasts. We are the state representative, as opposed to the federal government, so that is the relationship there. We collaborate with the national weather service and forward information there. So whether it is a major snowstorm in New York City, a hurricane heading for the coast, a tornado outbreak, or any number of severe weather things across the state, we monitor it.
We are involved with teaching the fire weather course to the New York state rangers. We instruct them as to what weather conditions could make fire outbreaks more likely. Related to that, we provide the daily fire danger map for all of the state that is found on the DEC website and other areas.
One of our final hats that we put on every day is that we review the dispersion modeling portion of the air permit process. Facilities need a permit to pollute the air. Companies hire consultants to use a EPA (environmental protection agency) standard model to estimate the pollution impacts, conservatively I might add, on the community surrounding the facility. Our job is to make sure that the models are run correctly and that the impacts are below state and federal standards.
AE: Anything else?
BG: I also run the Eastern New York Weather Observing Network, where (meteorologists and others) monitor snowfall and precipitation around the 10 county region surrounding Albany. We are busy bees. And we are in our busy season because pollution impacts are maximized in the summer months, especially ozone.
AE: Why are pollution impacts maximized during the summer months?
BG: The driver is ozone. Our primary focus and the most frequent advisories are for ozone. That is ground-based ozone. We aren’t talking about ozone in the upper atmosphere that protects us from ultraviolet radiation.
This is ozone created due to pollution near the ground. It is a secondary pollutant. There are precursors such as VOCs that come from cars, gasoline, factories; and nitrogen dioxide which comes from the same. When sunlight at high temperatures hits those precursors, it chemically creates ozone. That ozone, when breathed in, can cause problems for people with asthma or other lung conditions or diseases. It can even impact the healthy general public if the ozone levels get high enough. So, because it takes high temperatures and sunlight, which is strongest in the summertime, summer is the peak time when we have high ozone levels.
AE: Are there any Adirondack-specific air quality issues you have noticed in your career?
BG: The Adirondacks are not excluded from air pollution concerns. We can have advisories for any part of the state, including the Adirondacks. As clean as it is there, the winds can draw out pollution from urban locations and bring it up to the Adirondacks. However, as with the rest of the state, the air pollution rates are on the decline.
One of the success stories concerns the acid deposition and the acidification of the lakes there. The problems there that have existed over the decades are improving with time.
AE: What changes have occurred during your career?
BG: That is a great question. When I first started (as a meteorologist) 30 years ago, there were no formal air quality forecasts. When things got bad everyone was scrambling around but there was not a daily air quality forecast. Since I joined DEC, the EPA, in particular EPA Region 1 out of Boston, has helped coordinate an air quality forecast program. We started that program ourselves here in New York state at the same time the EPA was gaining interest in formal air quality forecast. At that time our group was three people, maybe four. Starting in the early 1990s, we started forecasting ozone. Later on, around the turn of the century, that is when fine particles or particulate matter forecast started to come into play.