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Earth Matters

Satellites and Ground Sensors Observe Smoke Blanketing California

November 14th, 2018 by Adam Voiland

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Aqua/MODIS

As powerful downslope winds sent the deadly Camp Fire raging through bone-dry vegetation in northern California on November 8, 2018, sensors on the ground and in space began to detect sharp increases in air pollution downwind of the inferno.

From space, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor observed expansive smoke and aerosol plumes over California’s Central Valley and coast soon after the fire began. Likewise, the Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite (OMPS) on Suomi NPP observed unusually high aerosol levels, and the Measurement of Pollution in the Troposphere (MOPITT) on Terra picked up strong carbon monoxide signals from the fire.

Image Credit: Purple Air

Meanwhile on the ground, atmospheric scientists Pawan Gupta, Robert Levy, Prakash Doraiswamy, and Olga Pikelnaya have been keeping a close eye on air quality data from a network of low-cost sensors distributed throughout the region. These sensors measure the mass concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Some stations measured PM2.5 values higher than 500 micrograms per cubic meter, which is about 40 times higher than the level considered safe to breathe.

“On November 9th, due to favorable wind direction, most of the smoke was confined to a smaller region north of San Francisco, but the wind direction changed on the 10th, and smoke spread over a much larger region,” noted Gupta, who is based at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and works with NASA’s SERVIR and ARSET programs. “On the 11th and 12th, the wind direction again changed, and most of the smoke blew over the ocean.”

Gupta is involved in an ongoing effort to deploy and test low-cost commercial air quality sensors to see how well their measurements compare with standard EPA measurements and NASA satellite observations. The ground-based sensors that are part of official state and federal government observing networks cost several thousand dollars each, but the new generation of sensors cost just a few hundred dollars—cheap enough that Gupta thinks they could proliferate and potentially be used to help fill in crucial gaps, particularly in countries with few air quality sensors.

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Landsat 8/OLI

“The low-cost sensors have performed as expected, though with varying accuracy for certain types of particles,” said Gupta. “Going forward, we hope to use what we learn from them to improve the techniques scientists use to derive levels of particulate matter at the surface from the entire column aerosol measurements observed by satellites.”

So far, Gupta and his colleagues have deployed about 40 low-cost sensors in California. Next summer, they plan to add hundreds of additional sensors in New Delhi, an area that regularly gets hit with dust storms and smoke from agricultural burning. They also plan to deploy sensors in North Carolina, an area with relatively clean air.

Citizen scientists interested in air quality can get involved in the project. Gupta and colleagues from RTI International, South Coast Air Quality Management District, NASA, and other institutions are recruiting volunteers to host the low-cost sensor and share the results with the experts.

Further Reading:
Air Quality Citizen Science, Project Goals and Overview
EOS, New Strategies to Protect People from Smoke During Wildfires
KVPR, NASA’s JPL Using Fresno As A Test Bed For Air Quality Research
Geohealth, Impact of California Fires on Local and Regional Air Quality: The Role of a Low‐Cost Sensor Network and Satellite Observations

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One Response to “Satellites and Ground Sensors Observe Smoke Blanketing California”

  1. Bobbie Willliams says:

    11/15/18
    Hello,
    I am a resident of northern California who lost two homes in the Carr fire in July in Shasta County. From the beginning, my goal has been to maintain the integrity of my lungs for an upcoming medical procedure. I am writing to praise the information available to me due to
    the land sensors. This has been especially helpful due to the pollutants in the air from the Camp fire in northern California.

    Fortunately, I came across an article about particulate matter in the air at the beginning of the Camp fire. When I contacted the air quality management office in Redding, California for further information a lady explained the information available to me on the site concerning air quality that
    is gathered from the sensors. I am very grateful for the ground sensors that provide this data. This data has allowed me to make decisions that are best for my health.

    Thank you,
    B. Williams

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