Measuring Alberta’s air quality…from space!

By Casandra Brown and Greg Wentworth, Alberta Environment and Parks
January, 2020

Albertans usually experience clean air, but from time to time we all go through bad air quality events caused by things like wildfire smoke or smog. One of the first steps to improving air quality is to understand what pollutants are responsible for poor air quality and where they come from.

Traditionally, air pollutants are measured by monitoring equipment that is stationary and deployed on the ground. However, it’s not feasible to install this equipment everywhere across Alberta, due to factors such as cost, accessibility issues and power requirements. Enter: satellite-based sensors that can measure multiple air pollutants simultaneously across large areas from space.

Sentinel-5P_Europe_s_air_quality_monitoring_mission

Image of the satellite that carries the TROPOMI instrument, which measures air pollution from space (image courtesy of the European Space Agency)

Using Satellites to Monitor Air Quality in Alberta

Cristen has led collaborative research using satellites to help address specific air quality issues with other government agencies and universities across Alberta. She holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Toronto and has experience measuring atmospheric pollutants in the Canadian Arctic and Alberta.

Cristen has used satellite data to answer many different questions from large to small scale. For instance, satellite data was used to understand how much air pollution was emitted during the 2016 Horse River wildfire in Fort McMurray (check out this paper to learn more about this work). The team also used satellites as part of an investigation into increased sulphur dioxide concentrations at one monitoring station in Alberta’s oil sands region in recent years.

“Since satellites collect a lot of data over such large areas, they are able to capture events that scientists can’t predict or plan in advance for. For example, the first maps showing the full scale of the Antarctic ozone hole in the 1980s used satellite data,” Cristen explains. “Today, scientists continue to rely on satellite data to find and track air pollution sources, like wildfires and smoke plumes.”

Dr. Cristen Adams

Dr. Cristen Adams, atmospheric scientist, Alberta Environment and Parks

What’s Next?

In the next few years, a new satellite called TEMPO will be launched and held in position over North America. TEMPO will be the first satellite to take measurements of air pollution across North America every hour throughout the day. “Currently, satellites typically take snapshots of air quality about once or twice per day,” says Cristen. “With TEMPO, we will be able to track air pollution throughout the day. This will help us better understand the causes and track the movement of air pollution.” To that end, AEP is continuing to build capacity for using satellites to answer questions that will help us better understand, and ultimately improve, the air Albertans breathe.

“Satellites can help us fill in gaps between traditional on-the-ground stations and estimate amounts of pollutants being emitted. With new satellite instruments, such as TEMPO, coming online, we will be able to do this work with better spatial detail and shorter time periods,” Cristen adds.

Learn More

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s