UAF Project Seeks to Provide First-ever Real-time Air-quality Data for Rural, Remote Areas

Jul 25, 2019

A graduate student with the University of Alaska Fairbanks is installing air-quality sensors in rural and remote areas around the state to monitor wildfire smoke and other types of air pollution. A UAF professor heading up the project says the sensors will for the first time provide publicly accessible real-time data on air quality outside of cities – data that could help rural residents protect themselves from the harmful effects of wildfire smoke.


Julia Hnilicka says she’s installed 14 sensors over the past few weeks, starting with five Native villages in the eastern Interior: “Tanacross, Northway, Eagle Village, Mentasta Lake and Gakona.”

Julia Hnilicka installs an air-quality sensor on the Venetie Village Council building in the village northwest of Fort Yukon.
Credit Venetie Village Council

Hnilicka says she went to the villages first, because that’s what she proposed in the grant application to the Arizona-based Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals. A supplemental grant from UAF paid for more trips to other communities, both native and non-native, including some in the Upper Yukon and central Interior that she accessed by riverboat.

It’s a mode of travel she’s accustomed to after growing up in Nenana, where her dad operated a river-barge business.

“I ran that company for him,” she said in an interview Monday. “And so that’s how I became very involved in rural communities and developed a real love and passion for the community members up and down the Yukon River.”

That’s why Hnilicka is working on a graduate degree in rural development through UAF’s Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development. And it’s why she jumped at the chance to work on a pilot project to monitor air quality in rural communities that are often afflicted with wildfire smoke.

That’s important information, because the smoke is harmful. But air-quality monitoring has never been done outside of the state’s urban areas as part of a system that provides real-time, publicly accessible data. A state Department of Environmental Conservation official says the agency has monitored air quality in outlying areas, but has been limited by budget cuts. (See Editor's note, below).

The sensors Hnilicka is installing are the first step toward monitoring the smoke in real-time and making the data available.

“So that we are able to at least get some baseline data about what’s happening with the air quality for communities that are affected by wildfire,” she said.

The project was conceived and is directed by Jingqui Mao, a UAF researcher and assistant professor of atmospheric chemistry in UAF’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Mao says remote communities often are blanketed by wildfire smoke, especially in hyperactive fire seasons like this year’s. He says the sensors will help let people who live in those communities know whether the smoke is heavy enough to pose a serious health threat, and whether they need to take precautions like staying indoors.

“We knew we had a lot of wildfires,” he said. “We want to know how that impacts air quality. This provides a means to do that.”

Mao says the sensors also will monitor other pollutants, like dust that’s kicked up by wind from riverbeds or unpaved roads or trails. Hnilicka says she’s familiar with both road dust and wildfire smoke, and that’s helped her talk to people in communities she’s visited about the importance of monitoring those airborne irritants so they can protect their health.

“Honestly, “she said, “I have grown up in a very dusty part of Nenana. I have have breathed wildfire smoke many, many years. And I had no idea about the health implications of it, until doing this project. And I am terribly shocked.”

Mao says he hopes to get more communities interested in the sensors, enough to reach what he calls a “critical mass” that will generate enough data to help him and other researchers understand more about wildfires and their smoky byproduct.

A screenshot of PurpleAir's map shows good air quality in much of Alaska except communities in the Yukon Flats, where large wildfires continue to burn. The map shows Fort Yukon's reading of 188 and advises residents to take precautions, especially vulnerable people like infants and the elderly.
Credit PurpleAir

“Once we hit a critical mass, and people start seeing the value of this data, they might be willing to jump on it,” he said.

Mao says the sensors he got from an online company called PurpleAir cost about $200 each, and can be quickly and easily installed anywhere there’s electricity and a wi-fi connection. He hopes the low cost and ease of installation will convince people to get one for their homes, so they can contribute to the project as citizen-scientists. And to get more installed in schools, so they can also be used for teaching students about air quality and its health impacts.

“And,” he added, “then they can educate their parents!”

Mao encourages anyone interested in checking out the data being generated by the sensors to go to purpleair.com. He says he hopes to get a UAF website up within the next couple of weeks to provide the public with more information about the project and how to join in. Meanwhile, Hnilicka plans to head south next week to install more sensors in communities around the Kenai Peninsula.

Editor's note: To check PurpleAir's air-quality map, click here and zoom in on Alaska to enlarge that part of the map big enough to discern each site around the state where Hnilicka has installed sensors.

Editor's note2: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Information Officer Laura Achee said in a July 26 email that DEC has conducted many air-quality monitoring projects in rural Alaska. "Because of budget constraints, we’re not able to routinely monitor in rural Alaska, but over the years we have partnered with communities and tribes to assess air quality through special projects," Achee wrote. This story has been revised to include that information.