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Calgary researchers reaching for the sky with air quality study

The air is thick with fumes and smoke, and University of Calgary researchers are directing their skills to measuring and detecting it.

In Calgary, there are three permanent air quality monitoring stations part of the air quality regulatory system. However, that number is far too low to gain an accurate reading on how specific areas might be affected.

University of Calgary professor Stefania Bertazzon set out to rectify that knowledge gap. The Professor of Geography and her colleague Rizwan Shahid, an adjunct assistant professor, teamed up to map which parts of the city were most likely to be affected by air pollutants. Professor Bertazzon said that there was a distinct lack of monitoring in the city before the study.

“I was surprised with how little we know about our air quality in Calgary. We like spending time outdoors and pedestrians and bike paths. But we rarely understand that those paths run along the busiest roads,” Dr. Bertazzon said.

“When people saw our air quality maps, and we educated them about air pollution, many people realized they were travelling along the most polluted areas.”

Spreading the word about air quality

Dr. Bertazzon spearheaded clean air campaigns to widen people’s knowledge of the issue and how it might affect them. Alongside this campaign, Dr. Bertazzon approached a number of homeowners across the city, asking for permission to place air monitoring systems in their backyards for the study.

Despite people’s lack of knowledge, Dr. Bertazzon said she was thrilled to see the interest and concern people still had for the issue.

“So many people care about this issue. When we deployed our monitors, we asked people if they would be willing to host a monitor in their yards, and we had an overwhelming response, so many people want to know what their air is like,” said Dr. Bertazzon.

“It was a positive surprise. We hope people will be able to empower themselves by knowing about and protecting themselves from air pollution.”

Mapping air pollution

The initial number of stations used in the study across Calgary was 50, which then rose to 100 in the next phase of research.

Using all of that data, the research team put together “heat maps” showing how the city is affected by air pollutants.

The maps paint a clear and informative picture showing which parts of the city are worse off. This was achieved by Dr. Shahid, who used his background in both computer sciences and geographic information systems.

Dr. Shahid stressed that these maps may look alarming. But the air quality in Calgary is actually quite good. One area in Calgary having worse air quality than others is all relative.

“We know that the representation of the analysis and the portrayal of data needed to be done safely. It couldn’t be too broad but not too detailed either to single out specific places. It was the right amount of information that could benefit everyone,” Dr. Shahid said.

“Initially, when we published our paper on the study, we didn’t have a map. Once it was picked up by a wider community, it clicked that I should have a story map measuring the air quality index across the city.”

The maps were created using geospatial lenses combined with geographical information sciences (GIS). This geospatial measuring gives an accurate estimate of how air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide are distributed through the city.

Mapping clearly shows that any area next to a major roadway is at increased risk of exposure. Major transportation corridors like Memorial Drive, Deerfoot Trail, or Crowchild Trail show distinctive red markings that give away their effect. The downtown core is arguably the most affected.

Solutions to improve air quality

Dr. Bertazzon said that since most of Calgary’s air pollutant problems seem to stem from roadways, mitigating the problem would be tied to infrastructure changes and alternative methods of transportation.

“Over five years, the spatial patterns didn’t change much with the same areas affected. The only thing we can do is to try and decrease pollution in affected areas, by using vehicles less and being smarter about driving habits,” Dr. Bertazzon said.

“Although, I think encouraging people to use options like the Calgary ring road will limit emissions within the city.”

Dr. Bertazzon said that while the maps may seem worrying and action should be taken to minimize the effect of air pollution, Calgary still has high air quality compared to other cities.

The COVID-19 pandemic stalled Dr. Bertazzon and her colleagues from continuing their research in 2020 and 2021. Once field tests are permitted again, the crew will begin examining areas of concern like schools to see how those places may be at risk.

Although, it is hard to determine exactly how people are affected by these findings as it usually comes down to an individual basis.