Poor Air Quality in Fairbanks

Spring 2022

In Fairbanks, Alaska, air pollution levels are unusually high where air quality levels are driven by bitter temperatures and pollutants. A multidisciplinary team of engineers and scientists has embarked on a research mission to understand why. 

The Alaskan Layered Pollution and Chemical Analysis project involves more than 40 researchers from more than 15 national and international universities working with the University of Alaska Fairbanks to investigate the types of pollutants in the air, their impact on air quality, and what causes the pollutants to be trapped in the Arctic atmosphere. The seven-week study is funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other international funding agencies. 

Peter DeCarlo, associate professor of environmental health and engineering, is part of a Johns Hopkins-based team participating in the study. 

When sunlight heats the Earth’s surface-level air, pollution in the atmosphere is normally diluted by natural convection and air movement. That mixed air rises to a level in the atmosphere called the boundary layer. In areas outside of the Arctic, that boundary level can be a few thousand feet or higher, but in Fairbanks, located in a river valley without much wind, the boundary layer is much closer to the ground.

Ellis Robinson, a postdoctoral researcher in DeCarlo’s lab who participated in the Fairbanks study, says these conditions result in “pooled stagnant air” around the city. 

DeCarlo’s team used an aerosol mass spectrometer to measure and identify the minute-by-minute chemical composition of atmospheric particles, offering powerful insights into daily air quality levels. 

As most residents of Fairbanks spend the majority of their time indoors, understanding the relationship between indoor and outdoor air quality is important. When it’s -30 degrees Fahrenheit outside and 65 degrees inside, that stark difference can change the composition of indoor and outdoor spaces, DeCarlo says. The team is studying what happens when outdoor air—including pollution particles and gases—gets inside and how regular indoor activities—such as cooking and running a pellet stove—can increase emissions in outdoor air quality. 

The study will be used to improve the characterization of air pollution in Fairbanks and will potentially help to regulate future emissions in the area. While Fairbanks is an interesting case study, the results can apply to other Arctic areas. 

“A lot of the manifestations of climate change are happening at an accelerated rate in Arctic areas,” DeCarlo says. “Understanding the situation now allows us to see what might be happening in the future and try to prepare for some of those changes.” 

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