Dozens of experts arrive in Fairbanks for air quality research

Rod Boyce
Jan. 26, 2022

Nearly 50 scientists from the U.S. and Europe have arrived in Fairbanks for a seven-week study of the chemical interactions that lead to the community’s poor wintertime air quality.

Their work will benefit not only Fairbanks but also other cold-weather communities around the world. In some of these places, wood smoke, power plant emissions, vehicle exhaust and other combustion sources often coalesce with other atmospheric particles to create dirty air that accumulates rather than disperses.

Air quality research at Fairbanks house
Photo by Jingqiu Mao
Graduate student Karolina Cysneiros de Carvalho, left, from Washington University at St. Louis and postdoctoral associate Ellis Robinson from John Hopkins University set up instruments to study the indoor air quality at a rented home in the Hamilton Acres neighborhood of Fairbanks.

“There's not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution for every Arctic community,” said project leader Bill Simpson, an atmospheric chemistry professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute and the UAF College of Natural Science and Mathematics. “It's going to mean thinking a lot about the local environment.”

The Alaskan Layered Pollution and Chemical Analysis project, or ALPACA, seeks to improve understanding of how pollution behaves in cold and dark conditions and how the layered atmosphere affects pollution events.

Fine particulate pollution causes respiratory illnesses and heart ailments in residents of cold-weather communities that have poor air dispersion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has put Fairbanks in its “serious” category for violating Clean Air Act standards and has threatened sanctions.

The Fairbanks research has three main components:

• Researchers have rented a Hamilton Acres house to learn about the chemical processes that occur once outside air moves indoors. They will also study other aspects of indoor air quality.

Researchers will analyze the air from various heights in Fairbanks to study temperature inversions.

• Several instruments in two trailers located near the UAF Community and Technical College in central Fairbanks will sample air to study the formation of aerosol particles, tiny droplets of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that have reacted with the atmosphere and combined with water molecules.

Sensors on tower in Fairbanks
Photo by Meeta Cesler-Maloney
Small inexpensive PurpleAir sensors on a tower in downtown Fairbanks measure particulate matter as part of the ALPACA research.

“We want to see how emissions from residential heating, from power plants and from vehicles transform in the air in such cold and dark conditions,” said assistant professor Jingqiu Mao of the UAF Geophysical Institute and College of Natural Science and Mathematics. “Scientists do not have much knowledge about this.”

Mao leads the team managing the trailer instruments. Information they also provide about the pollution’s chemical and physical properties will help medical experts assess health impacts.

“We know what material can be detrimental to health, but we want to quantify how much of that material, including organic compounds and metals, is in the Fairbanks air,” Mao said.

The ALPACA project seeks to answer questions asked by Fairbanks residents, including “Are wood and pellet stoves sources of indoor pollution?”, “Do power plant emissions affect ground-level air quality?” and “What are the bad smells in the air when it is really cold?”

Simpson said the research is not directly connected to air quality regulation. The findings, however, could be used by state and federal air quality regulators — especially with regard to Fairbanks.

“We're asking questions that we've heard the community ask, and we'd like to work with the community to answer them,” he said.

ALPACA also has an education component. Research associate professor Laura Conner and postdoctoral researcher Megan McGinty — both of the Geophysical Institute — and Courtney Breest of the University of Alaska Anchorage worked with 160 students at Tanana Middle School to assemble 80 small air quality sensors designed by the project team. Students programmed the sensors and will answer their own air pollution questions.

Air quality sensor in Fairbanks
Photo by Meeta Cesler-Maloney
A Praxis air quality sensor on the roof of the UAF Community and Technical College in Fairbanks measures gases and particulate matter. Another sensor is at ground level.

Simpson, Mao and professor Javier Fochesatto of the UAF Department of Atmospheric Sciences lead the project for UAF.

ALPACA is funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and European sources. The project is part of an international air quality effort called Pollution in the Arctic: Climate Environment and Societies and is being conducted in collaboration with local, state and federal air quality agencies.

Public informational events will be held at 7 p.m. on two Thursdays in February. Feb. 3 will focus on the Hamilton Acres field site, and Feb. 17 will focus on the UAF Community and Technical College field site.

The virtual tours of field sites and community discussion will be available via Zoom and Facebook live. Participants on both platforms will be able to join the discussion.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Bill Simpson, 907-474-7235, 907-474-2436,

NOTE TO EDITORS: Photographs are available at the Geophysical Institute website.