GeoLog

air quality

GeoSciences Column: Is smoke on your mind? Using social media to assess smoke exposure from wildfires

GeoSciences Column: Is smoke on your mind? Using social media to assess smoke exposure from wildfires

Wildfires have been raging across the globe this summer. Six U.S. States, including California and Nevada, are currently battling fierce flames spurred on by high temperatures and dry conditions. Up to 10,000 people have been evacuated in Canada, where wildfires have swept through British Columbia. Closer to home, 700 tourists were rescued by boat from fires in Sicily, while last month, over 60 people lost their lives in one of the worst forest fires in Portugal’s history.

The impacts of this natural hazard are far reaching: destruction of pristine landscapes, costly infrastructure damage and threat to human life, to name but a few. Perhaps less talked about, but no less serious, are the negative effects exposure to wildfire smoke can have on human health.

Using social media posts which mention smoke, haze and air quality on Facebook, a team of researchers have assessed human exposure to smoke from wildfires during the summer of 2015 in the western US. The findings, published recently in the EGU’s open access journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, are particularly useful in areas where direct ground measurements of particulate matter (solid and liquid particles suspended in air, like ash, for example) aren’t available.

Particulate matter, or PM as it is also known, contributes significantly to air quality – or lack thereof, to be more precise.  In the U.S, the Environment Protection Agency has set quality standards which limit the concentrations of pollutants in air; forcing industry to reduce harmful emissions.

However, controlling the concentrations of PM in air is much harder because it is often produced by natural means, such as wildfires and prescribed burns (as well as agricultural burns). A 2011 inventory found that up to 20% of PM emissions in the U.S. could be attributed to wildfires alone.

Research assumes that all PM (natural and man-made) affects human health equally. The question of how detrimental smoke from wildfires is to human health is, therefore, a difficult one to answer.

To shed some light on the problem, researchers first need to establish who has been exposed to smoke from natural fires. Usually, they rely on site (ground) measurements and satellite data, but these aren’t always reliable. For instance, site monitors are few and far between in the western US; while satellite data doesn’t provide surface-level concentrations on its own.

To overcome these challenges, the authors of the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics paper, used Facebook data to determine population-level exposure.

Fires during the summer of 2015 in Canada, as well as Idaho, Washington and Oregon, caused poor air quality conditions in the U.S Midwest. The generated smoke plume was obvious in satellite images. The team used this period as a case study to test their idea.

Facebook was mined for posts which contained the words ‘smoke’,’smoky’, ‘smokey’, ‘haze’, ‘hazey’ or ‘air quality’. The results were then plotted onto a map. To ensure the study was balanced, multiple posts by a single person and those which referenced cigarette smoke or smoke not related to natural causes were filtered out. In addition, towns with small populations were weighted so that those with higher populations didn’t skew the results.

The social media results were then compared to smoke measurements acquired by more traditional means: ground station and satellite data.

Example datasets from 29 June 2015. (a) Population – weighted, (b) average surface concentrations of particulate matter, (c) gridded HMS smoke product – satellite data, (d) gridded, unfiltered MODIS Aqua and MODIS Terra satellite data (white signifies no vaild observation), and (e) computer simulated average surface particulate matter. Image and caption (modified) from B.Ford et al., 2017.

The smoke plume ‘mapped out’ by the Facebook results correlates well with the plume observed by the satellites. The ‘Facebook plume’ doesn’t extend as far south (into Arkansas and Missouri) as the plume seen in the satellite image, but neither does the plume mapped out by the ground-level data.

Satellites will detect smoke plumes even when they have lifted off the surface and into the atmosphere. The absence of poor air quality measurements in the ground and Facebook data, likely indicates that the smoke plume had lifted by the time it reached Arkansas and Missouri.

The finding highlights, not only that the Facebook data can give meaningful information about the extend and location of smoke plume caused by wildfires, but that is has potential to more accurately reveal the air quality at the Earth’s surface than satellite data.

The relationship between the Facebook data and the amount of exposure to particular matter is complex and more difficult to establish. More research into how the two are linked will mean the researchers can quantify the health response associated with wildfire smoke. The findings will be useful for policy and decision-makers when it comes to limiting exposure in the future and have the added bonus of providing a cheap way to improve the predictions, without having to invest in expanding the ground monitor network.

By Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer

References

Ford, B., Burke, M., Lassman, W., Pfister, G., and Pierce, J. R.: Status update: is smoke on your mind? Using social media to assess smoke exposure, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 17, 7541-7554, https://doi.org/10.5194/acp-17-7541-2017, 2017.

March GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

March GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as  unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major story

While the March headlines might not have been dominated by a particular story, the state of the Earth’s climate has definitely been the overarching theme of the month.

Ahead of World Meteorological Day (celebrate on the 23rd March) the World Meteorological Organization released its annual report on the State of Global Climate. Compiled from a broad range of sources, the report reiterates the findings of the US government agencies NASA and NOAA, who earlier this year declared that 2016 was the warmest year on record.

Not only were temperatures a remarkable 1.1 °C above the pre-industrial period and 0.06 °C above the previous record set in 2015, global sea ice extent dropped more than 4 million square kilometres below average in November. Boosted by a strong El Niño event global sea levels reached record highs too.

The report comes in the wake of US President Trump’s ‘blueprint’ budget for 2018, where he sets out his spending priorities for the year ahead. Nature put together a piece that highlights what US science would stand to lose if the budget is approved. NASA would experience a 0.8% cut from current levels, largely focused on Earth science missions, and future NOAA satellite programmes are also under threat. Worst hit by the cuts would be the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), with a proposed 31% cut in funding, which would “gut EPA programs tackling climate change and pollution”, according to The Guardian.

But the signals are clear: after the record warming in 2016, temperatures have continued to rise in 2017, affecting ecosystems around the world. An example are the corals of the Great Barrier Reef,  which have suffered from widespread bleaching – a situation where they expel their symbiotic algae, meaning they turn white and can die – for the third consecutive year. A new study on mass bleaching of corals was discouraging news: the only long-term solution to the problem is halting global warming. Improving water quality or enforcing fishing controls provides little relief.

But it’s not all bad news when it comes to the global climate and the Earth’s environment. Despite being a record-breaking year in terms of temperatures, 2016 was also the year that saw a dramatic drop in the amount of new coal fueled power plants being built. With cities worldwide battling poor air quality and pollution, this is certainly encouraging news.

What you might have missed

Earlier this month a BBC News crew experienced the fickle nature of volcanoes first hand. The team were visiting Mt. Etna (Sicily) to film a report on volcano monitoring, and  arrived on the Italian island to discover Europe’s most active volcano had just started to erupt again.

Etna’s slow-moving lava is not usually considered dangerous. “But about 20 minutes after arriving, a burst of white steam emerged from the lava – it didn’t make much of a noise or look especially threatening – but the guides started asking people to move. Then, moments later, there was an explosion,” writes Rebecca Morelle, one of the reporters on the team. As they ran down the mountain to safety, the team and tourists, were “pelted with deadly, hot debris.” Read the full account of their ordeal and watch a spectacular video here.

It has also been a big month for palaeontology. Up until now the shape of a dinosaur’s hip determined were along the dinosaur family tree it was placed. Lizard-hipped dinosaurs fell into one group (Saurischia), while those with a more bird-like hip configuration are known as Ornithischia. Now, a team of researchers have proposed a radically new classification system. They found that 21 other anatomical features divide the dinosaurs differently. The new tree puts theropods together with Ornithischian, indicating they probably share a common ancestor. The new theory might face an uphill struggle to debunk the long-lasting consensus on the history of dinosaurs, but many in the field agree that given the thoroughness of the study it is certainly an idea worth considering.

Scientists from the Museum and Cambridge University have proposed radical changes to the dinosaur family tree. Credit: Natural History Museum.

And while we are on the subject of dinosaurs, this brilliant interactive map of every fossil found on Earth (created by @PaleoDB) is a great resource!

Way out in space, the bounty of insights from the Rosetta mission continues. From September 2014, the mission scientists have kept a watchful eye on a 70 m-long, 1 m-wide fracture on the prominent cliff-edge subsequently named Aswan, in the Seth region of the comet, on its large lobe. A few days later, new images of the area revealed that the crack had disappeared and been replaced by a new cliff face, at the bottom of which were many new meter-sized boulders. The discovery allowed the scientists to make the link between the newly created cliff face and outbursts of dust and gas.

You might think the use of infographics to visualise data is a relatively new thing, but you’d be mistaken. This collection of 1800s educational diagrams, of scientific discoveries, from the moon’s surface to the longest rivers, is simply stunning and incredibly effective.

Emslie and Reynolds compare mountains and volcanoes, including mountains in the Alps and Andes. Featured in Geological Diagrams. Courtesy David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Links we liked

  • Something for the weekend? Why not try your hand at baking a scientifically accurate (sort of!) cake planet?
  • New research suggests that by the middle of the century, more than half of humanity will live in water-stressed areas. Badly managed resources play a crucial role in water shortages globally
  • For a lighthearted, yet very informative, take on mass extinctions this story in The Atlantic is not to be missed
  • A German coal-mine, which has provided power for the country’s industry sector for the past half century, will get a new lease on life when it’s turned into a into a pumped-hydro-storage station, acting like a giant battery that stores solar and wind energy

The EGU story

This time of year, EGU’s biggest story is our annual General Assembly, starting only a few weeks from now. This month, we published the meeting programme, which includes some 1000 sessions and over 17,500 abstracts! On the blog, we published guides on how-to make the best of your oral, poster or PICO presentation at the General Assembly, revealed the finalists of the Communicate Your Science Video Competition, and provided tips on making the most of your time in Vienna without breaking the bank. We look forward to seeing you all in the Austrian capital in the last week of April!

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

GeoPolicy: EGU sciences on debate at the European Parliament

GeoPolicy: EGU sciences on debate at the European Parliament

The adoption of legislation within the European Union (EU) is a complex process involving many steps. In my first blog post in this GeoPolicy series I highlighted an example of this process.

Several draft legislation pieces are currently being assessed within the European Parliament (EP) and Council of Ministers (Council) that have been influenced by EGU-related science. This blog post summarises this draft legislation and to where in the process each piece has progressed.

Much of the information for this blog post has been taken from the European Parliament Research Service (EPRS) website, which produces support documents for the EP. It is here that you can find out more information about all EU legislation currently in progress.

 

 

Post-2020 reform of the EU Emissions Trading System

The EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by buying and selling emission ‘allowances’. One allowance is equal to one tonne of carbon dioxide or gas equivalent . The video below gives a good overview of the ETS.

The total amount of allowances is capped relative to 1990 emission totals, but this cap is reduced every year by 1.74 % to incentivise industries to reduce their emissions. If companies have reduced their emissions to below this cap they can sell surplus allowances, or keep them for the next year. The price of the allowance depends on supply and demand. Industries are incentivised to invest in carbon-reducing technology if this is a cheaper alternative than buying allowances. If carbon prices are lower than alternative technologies, extra allowances can be purchased from companies who have already reduced their emissions.

This EU legislation concentrates on the 4th phase of the ETS which spans the years 2020-2028 (we are currently in the 3rd phase, 2013-2020). The major policy points are:

  • The introduction of a market stabilisation reserve where 12 % of surplus annual allowances are stored for future use;
  • The annual cap decrease will change from 1.74 % to 2.2 % to reduce emissions faster;
  • Industries will now have to account for indirect carbon leakages in their emission inventories;
  • New funds will be available to aid start-up renewable projects.

This legislation is in the early stages of the process: the EC proposal document is currently receiving feedback and suggested amendments.  National parliaments, the European Economic & Social Committee and/or the Committee of Regions must still give feedback before an edited draft can be formed.

ETS Progress Bar

Progress stage of the drafted legislation. Sourced from the ‘Emissions Trading Scheme legislation EP progress briefing’.

 

 

National emission ceilings for air pollutants

Qir Quality Exposures

Percentage of the urban population in the EU28 exposed to air pollutant concentrations above EU and WHO reference levels (2010-12). Sourced from the ‘European Environment Agency: Air quality in Europe’. 

In December 2015 the EC produced an impact assessment focusing on five different policy options to achieve the EU’s health and environment objective goals. Despite considerable improvements, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has indicated that the EU still breaks pollutant levels that are considered to result in unnacceptable risks to humands and the environment. These levels are defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and are based exclusively on scientific findings. EU targets are much less restrictive than those of the WHO, but these levels are still being broken, as the figure on the right shows. Health-related costs of air pollution in the EU range between €330–940 billion per year.

The Gothenburg Protocol (1999) aimed to reduce acidification, eutrophication, and ground-level ozone by setting emissions caps for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and ammonia by 2010. This new EU legislation aims to further reduce emissions by setting new caps and larger fines for non-compliance. The European Commission estimates that implementation costs would range from €2.2 to 3.3 billion per year.

The legislation has been reviewed by impacted stakeholders and the EP advisory committee. The next stage is to discuss and amend the proposal in the EP plenary session. Once accepted, it will become the official stance of the EP. Negotiations are then continued with the Council in the trilogue before a final decision is made and the legislation is adopted.

 

 

Organic Farming Legislation

Organic farming is a political object of the EU, described as an “overall system of farm management and food production that respects natural life cycles”. Since the initial adoption in 2009,

 European Union Organic Produce Logo . Credit: ec.europa.eu (distributed via Wikimedia Commons )

European Union Organic Produce Logo . Credit: ec.europa.eu (distributed via Wikimedia Commons )

legislation has been continuously edited and expanded. The percentage area of agricultural land in the EU used for organic farming has remained at 6 % despite a steady expansion of the organic market. Currently, the EU imports organic produce to cover this gap in supply and demand.

The new legislation proposed by the European Commission (EC) has streamlined current legislation and removed historical ‘exception rules’ in order to define organic farming more rigorously. These changes include:

  • Organic farmers would no longer be able to use non-organic seed or introduce non-organic young poultry;
  • Organic farmers would be compensated if unintentional non-authorised products are found within their farms;
  • Mixed farming techniques (organic and conventional farming) would be allowed only during the conversion period from traditional to organic practices.

Market for organic foodstuffs: the top 10 countries. Sourced from the FiBL and IFOAM report ‘ORGANIC IN EUROPE: Prospects and Developments’

 

The figure below shows the progress of this drafted legislation: currently at the ‘trilogue’ step. This means the drafted legislation has been proposed by the EC and submitted to the Council, the EP and relevant stakeholders who have been able to give their feedback (a staggering 950 amendments were received!). Both the EP and the Council have produced their amended legislation drafts, which have been approved by their respective allocated subcommittees. Now, selected members from the EP and Council are to produce the final drafted legislation in the trilogue, which then will be voted to be adopted by the EP.

Progress stage of the drafted legislation. Sourced from Organic farming legislation EP progress briefing.

Progress stage of the drafted legislation. Sourced from the ‘organic farming legislation EP progress briefing’.

 

More information about the current draft legislation being considered in the European parliament can be found here.

 

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: