Oh Say Can You Breathe? The Impact of Fireworks on Air Quality in the United States

[Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash]
[Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash]

by Perry Samson, Climate and Space Science and Engineering, University of Michigan
On July 4th last year, in an attempt to entertain my two grandchildren, I set off what I felt was a modest display of fireworks in our front yard. A monitor that measures the concentration of particles (PM2.5) in the air was mounted there and my colleague, Jeff Masters of Weather Underground, noticed that the concentrations being recorded were remarkably high that evening. This led us to review hourly concentrations of PM2.5 that night across the United States, collected both by state agencies and an independent network available from PurpleAir.org.  Results showed widespread increases in particulate concentrations that evening, with increases varying across the country.
Nationally, about 80% of all sites saw a doubling of particulate matter during the evening of July 4, 2017 with several sites producing exceedances of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard of 150 µg/m3 3-hour standard. These results were presented at the AMS Annual Meeting in January in a talk entitled “Oh Say Can You Breathe.”
Average hourly particle concentration increases from background levels seen in 2017 for multiple sites across the United States.

Average hourly particle concentration increases from background levels seen in 2017 for multiple sites across the United States.

Moreover, the increase in PM2.5 seen in 2017 is consistent with other years. The increase in PM2.5 from background levels was compiled for the eight-year period 2010-2017. Over that time over 25% of measurement sites in the United States reported a rise of at least 35 µg/m3 with about 5% reporting a rise of greater than 100 µg/m3.
Percent of all measurement sites reporting an hourly increase in PM2.5 from background conditions exceeding both 35 µg/m3 and 100 µg/m3.

Percent of all measurement sites reporting an hourly increase in PM2.5 from background conditions exceeding both 35 µg/m3 and 100 µg/m3.

These results are compelling as they point out how, for at least one evening a year, we are willing to subject ourselves (and even our grandchildren) to high concentrations of particulate matter. According to the EPA, concentrations above 150 µg/m3 are considered “Unhealthy” and can cause widespread coughing and other increased respiratory effects.
While it is unlikely that there will be much political will to legislate against fireworks displays in the United States, these results should be of interest to people suffering from asthma who may want to protect themselves from outdoor air during this year’s July 4th celebrations.
As for me, and despite evidence of risk, I’m doubling down on the fireworks this year to REALLY impress the kids.
I just moved the PM2.5 monitor away from my home.
[Photo by Sang Huynh on Unsplash]
[Photo by Sang Huynh on Unsplash]

Did You Hear? Echoes from the Annual Meeting

This year’s AMS Annual Meeting provided no shortage of memorable presentations. The focus on 2017’s hurricanes in particular yielded some of the most memorable moments, and now you can listen (again, or for the first time) for yourself. Recorded presentations are being uploaded gradually to the AMS meeting program site.
Richard Alley’s speech at the Presidential Forum was the first to go online, here including AMS President Roger Wakimoto’s introduction as well as questions from the audience:

Here’s a portion of Dr. Alley’s memorable riff on our semi-aware relationship to the science and technology we carry around in our pockets every day:

I’m a Newtonian physicist. I didn’t take quantum, I didn’t take relativity. But my understand is that the nice lady in the (cell) phone using the GPS is using both general and special relativity. Because down here, she is deeper in Earth’s gravity well and she is moving slower than the clocks on the satellite. And the correction from relativity is about 10 km a day. And she can do 10 km pretty easily. Which means if she didn’t have relativity, she would get lost in about two minutes. And that’s … We get where we’re going not only because of quantum mechanics but also because of Einstein. And, no, she will not fall for you because she’s canoodling with Einstein in the phone here.
But you know how these things work. Right? … I’ve been working on ice since 1977, the summer after my freshman year. My teachers, in geology and other things, I think if you were to ask them what is the most useless and esoteric science you can think of, they might have said relativity and quantum mechanics. And you’ve got relativity and quantum mechanics in your phone, in your pocket, and you can’t really think of living the life you now live if we didn’t understand relativity and quantum mechanics….
Climate science is not this new-fangled stuff you’ve got in your cell phone … it’s been with us for a long time. But I can tell you, and some of you out there know this as well, that there are people—good people, neighbors, people who pay our salaries—who will pull out their cell phone and send me a note saying, ‘You’re an evil liar. You should be fired.’ They go to my president and try to get me fired. Because I’m talking about this global nonsense. ‘These scientists are just trying to take away our pickup trucks.’ And they do it with a cell phone. And they are, I think, all across the board, good people. Some of them have been misled. And that’s something we have to come back to.

Also online now are the talks from the web-streamed Presidential Town Hall on the hurricane season.  Well worth a listen while you’re waiting for more talks to appear online, like this reaction to forecasting Hurricane Irma, from NBC-6 Miami Chief Meteorologist John Toohey-Morales:

In South Florida I’m known as the non-alarmist guy. I mean if you want a just-the-facts-and-he’s-not-at-all-that-excited-about-this-tropical-cyclone guy, I’m your person … But with Hurricane Irma … on Friday night … National Weather Service Key West … about to go into full-Katrina mode: catastrophic, life threatening, and those types of messages were about to go out … what does the non-alarmist guy do? (Plays video of his TV broadcast that Friday night.) ‘If you’re sitting on a Florida Key right now—What the heck are ya doing? Get out! Now!’

Or this zinger from FEMA’s Tony Robinson, while talking about Hurricane Harvey:

Working with our counterparts in the state of Louisiana a guy said, ‘I finally figured out your flood codes on when I should have flood insurance.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah? What’s that?’ He said, ‘Your driver’s license says Louisiana, you aughta have flood insurance.’ That’s a public service announcement right there. There’s 144 days to the start of the 2018 hurricane season.”

But it was Ada Monzon, WIPR TV/WKAQ Radio, San Juan, who drew a rare standing ovation after her heartfelt presentation on Hurricane Maria:

And I can tell you, that in my 30 years as a meteorologist in Puerto Rico, even going through Hugo and Georges and more than 10 other tropical storms … (I’m sorry) … For the first time in my life I was afraid. Not because of the wind or the storm surge or the rain. I was afraid [for] the future of Puerto Rico. … Still to this day there are great discrepancies on how many people died in Puerto Rico because of Maria. By government information, there were 64 dead. Our other entities have informed … of more than 1,000 dead. … The response and recovery efforts have been very slow and complicated. More than three months after the hurricane, near 45% of the island is still without power. Many are suffering. More than 100,000 people have left the island in the last three months, to Florida, New York, Texas. … Enduring two major hurricanes has been hard. But at the same time it has served a vast lesson to all our society: We need to find a way of living with natural disasters and other potential catastrophic events and we need to work harder as meteorologists and scientists to educate our public through all means of communication, especially social media.


Is It Just Us…or Was That the BBQ Talking?

So many conversations at the 2018 AMS Annual Meeting started–and ended–on the same note, and Dakota Smith captures it just right in his “Weather Nerds Assemble” vlog:

Communication is a huge aspect in this field….If a forecast is a hundred percent accurate, but no one understands it, it’s not a useful forecast. That in a nutshell was what this meeting was about.

According to Smith, all that geeked out conversation amongst 4,200 weather, water, and climate nerds added up to at least these four lessons:

  1. The future is bright: “I talked with so many intelligent, bright, passionate students who are bound to make an impact on our community. Keep up the grind!”
  2. Meteorologists are incredibly strong: The communications workshop reflecting on the experience of Harvey, Irma, and Maria showed that  “meteorologists across the country used…love and passion to fuel them through this relentless hurricane season.”
  3. Austin has incredible BBQ.
  4. Meteorologists are awesome. “I already knew this before…we love weather, and we love science!”

The last two are obvious, right? The first two make our day. Share your own take-away points; meanwhile, you owe yourself the injection of enthusiasm–just in case you got lost in the trees since returning home:


Revisiting the Hurricane Town Hall Meeting

The all-star panel comprising Monday’s special Town Hall Meeting on the 2017 hurricane season provided a riveting discussion of the science, communication, and impacts of Harvey, Irma, and Maria, highlighted by Ada Monzón’s emotional talk about the devastating effects Maria has had on Puerto Rico. The session created a buzz among #AMS2018 attendees.

The entire session has now been posted to the AMS YouTube channel, and you can also watch it below.

Writing and the Collaborative Process

A good writer inevitably is also a good listener, always mining every conversation and interaction for the next gem that could be used in their work. Authors of AMS books are no exception, and this week in Austin you could be the person to provide one of them with a new idea or angle. A collection of authors will be reading from their works and participating in Q&A sessions with meeting attendees, providing you with an opportunity to discuss your interests with them and learn more about the writing process.
The events will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday at the AMS Resource Center in the Exhibit Hall. The Tuesday session will feature historical topics, with Bob Reeves exploring the history of long-range forecasting (4:oo PM), Jen Henderson speaking about Ted Fujita (4:20), Paul Menzel (4:40) and John Lewis (4:55) discussing Verner Suomi, and Lourdes Avilés looking back at the Great New England Hurricane (5:10).
Wednesday’s event will focus on science and society: Matt Barlow will speak about his forthcoming handbook for atmospheric dynamics (4:00 PM), Bob Henson will discuss climate change science and policy (4:20), and Bill Hooke (4:40) and Bill Gail (5:00) will consider the human relationship to climate.
A unique aspect of AMS books is the collegiality between the authors and their readers, and with this event we invite you to get to know some of them better and perhaps even help them with their craft. It’s the collaborative process at work!

Time Machines, Horse Ploppies…Richard Alley Will Do the Talking Today

From his book and PBS-TV series, “Earth: The Operator’s Manual,” to his renowned lectures at Penn State, Dr. Richard Alley is known for his humorous descriptions about serious science. Today he is the featured speaker as the 98th Annual AMS Annual Meeting begins in Austin, Texas.  Richard Alley
At the 18th AMS Presidential Forum  (4 pm, Ballroom D) Dr. Alley will use his unique brand of communication to discuss why communicating science to the public is no longer optional, but rather an imperative.
Dr. Alley, a renowned glaciologist and climate scientist, has a way with words. His colorful metaphors–like The Two-Mile Time Machine, the title his award-winning popular book about ice cores–put complex scientific issues into a comfortable perspective for perplexed audiences.
Last May, a couple months before a large piece of Antarctica’s Larson C ice shelf broke off,  Rolling Stone published an article about  potential catastrophic collapse of West Antarctica ice. In it, Dr. Alley explained that the Larson C breakage would not necessarily be an “end-of-the-world screaming hairy disaster conniption fit.”
And here, transcribed from a 2012 talk at the Smithsonian in which Dr. Alley explained the impact of burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2:

“You fill up a car and it’s a fairly big tank–you’re putting in a hundred pounds of gasoline. If you had to bring it home in gallon jugs it’d be a different world. But you drive off with it. And when you burn it — you add oxygen — and that makes CO2, and it goes out the tailpipe and you don’t see that 300 pounds per fill-up. Now, our students really get a kick out of it: at this point you say okay, suppose that our transportation system packaged the CO2 in a way we could see it … as horse ploppies…It’s a pound per mile driven for a typical vehicle in the fleet at this point. Ya know … Nnnnn — thffft. Nnnnn — thffft …. Our CO2 turned to the density of horse ploppies and spread over the roads of America would cover every road in America an inch deep every year. On average. Okay. In a decade … there are no joggers. We’d all be cross-country skiers. If we saw this it would be a completely different world. But it just drifts away and we don’t even see it.”

Sunday’s keynote talk at the Presidential Forum is likely to be just as, ummm, vivid. Simple but powerful. Definitely memorable.
It’s exactly the way Alley envisions engaging the public: by building the broad understanding necessary to make science actionable.