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.

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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.

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It’s All Hands on Deck to Protect Alberta’s Waters!

As summer comes to a close, Albertans will soon be packing up their summer floaties and digging out their warm winter gear! Instead of going into hibernation instantly, your important role as citizen scientists must continue on through the cold times ahead. We must remain diligent and keep our eyes peeled for invasive species. This year, we’re asking Albertans to band together and lend an extra helping hand while they are packing up their cabins at the lake. Continue reading

Clean, Drain and Dry: Pro Tips and Tricks

The Government of Alberta is committed to protecting and maintaining healthy and sustainable fish populations and aquatic ecosystems throughout the province, and the way we work as public servants reflects this.

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Plan ahead. Some gear is very difficult to clean. If you don’t need to use it, don’t! You only need to clean equipment that has been in contact with the water.

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Does Clean, Drain and Dry Really Work?

WD Life CycleIt seems so simple, almost too simple, how effective are the clean, drain and dry actions in preventing the spread of whirling disease and invasive species?

From oars to inner tubes and flippers to waders, any gear used in water can spread whirling disease or invasive species. By their very nature, aquatic diseases like whirling disease have qualities that allow them to spread and survive adverse conditions. For example, the whirling disease parasite is microscopic and survives in the environment up to 30 years. Whirling disease impacts fish populations, in the Western United States whirling disease caused up to 90% declines in wild fish populations.

The Clean, Drain and Dry practices provide simple and effective direction on how to prevent the spread of whirling disease and aquatic invasive species. Continue reading

Don’t sail through inspection stations – it’s a boat health!

Although spring was slow to arrive this year, yacht to know the aquatic invasive species team has already sprung into action in fight against aquatic invasive species! The mandatory inspection stations have started this year’s search for invasive species on watercraft entering Alberta and have already found the first mussels of 2018 on a sailboat headed for Ghost Lake. When canoe expect all of the stations to be open? They will all have their flashlights out to put a spotlight on these invasive hitchhikers by the end of May, so expect to be inspected!

Inspections 13 Continue reading

Student Action Challenge – One School’s Growing Success

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARobert Thirsk High School has brought its foods program to life thanks to a student with a passion for stewardship, a hands-on natural sciences program and an application to Alberta Environment and Parks Climate and Environment Student Action Challenge. Continue reading

The Wonderful World of Wetlands

Sloughs, potholes and marshes, oh my! The names may bring back happy memories growing up on the farm, less happy memories of itchy bug bites or perhaps you haven’t thought about wetlands since grade 5.  In Alberta, wetlands are grouped into five classes; bog, fen, marsh, swamp and shallow-open water. While they are sometimes thought of as a lightweight player in the world of water, these underestimated water-features do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to a healthy environment.

Wetland Sunset

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Water’ll we do without it? Finding Nature-Based Solutions to Protect Alberta’s Water Resources

Water has been boiling to the top of people’s mind as the world is faced with more and more water-related issues like flood, drought and water pollution. In Alberta, we continue to find ways to protect our water resources. As World Water Day approaches on March 22, the day’s theme, Nature for Water, couldn’t be more fitting. Finding nature-based solutions to help solve our 21st century world water problems is the key to preserving this resource.

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This is the infestation that never ends…

 …Yes it goes on and on my friends.

The thing with invasive species is that once they’re introduced to a habitat in which they are not native, they’re extremely difficult to eradicate, especially if that population has been there for a while AND it’s in the water.

The flowering rush, Butomus umbellatus, is one such species.

Flowering rush

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No Idle Matter: the consequences of idling

Whenever we find ourselves stuck in traffic, crawling through a restaurant drive-thru, or waiting for passengers, our vehicles’ engines idle and spew harmful pollutants into the atmosphere – pollutants that eventually make their way into our air, water and soil.

We generally don’t give idling much thought, but its cost to the environment, our communities, our health and our pocketbooks cannot be understated.

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