Julia Hnilicka

Julia Hnilicka hangs a sensor at Toolik Research Station. 

A university collaboration could yield more insight to air quality in rural Alaska communities.

Jingqiu Mao, a professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said he had been talking about air quality with people living in rural communities for a while. Mao, who works with the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the Geophysical Institute, specifically noted discussions with communities around Palmer following the emergence of a number of wildfires.

“They were suffering pretty bad air quality, and there’s no way for them to know how bad it is, no way for them to respond to air pollution,” he said.

It was through these discussions that Mao took note of local air sensor installation. The project he’s currently working on with UAF involves PurpleAir sensor installation in rural Alaska communities.

By having the sensors in place, according to Mao, scientists can begin to find out how much rural air quality is affected by wildfires and road dust.

“That would be something we’re hoping for,” he said.

The sensors monitor particulate matter, or PM, in the air at sizes of 0.3, 0.5, 1, 2.5, 5 and 10 micrometers, then uses that data to find the concentration of PM1.0, PM2.5, and PM10, according to the PurpleAir website.

Air pollution levels in Fairbanks and North Pole have exceeded the limits set by the federal Clean Air Act. The Fairbanks North Star Borough has to lower PM2.5 levels by Dec. 31 or face sanctions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Mao explained PM2.5 is a microscopic particulate that “can penetrate deeply into our lungs and cause health issues.”

The sensors are useful because they can provide real time information on PM2.5 as well as PM10, a slightly larger particle, as well as temperature and more, although Mao said his research will focus on PM2.5.

In more remote locations around Alaska, sensor installation and data gathering has begun.

PurpleAir sensors are “about the size of a coffee mug” according to Julia Hnilicka, an intern on the project with UAF and the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals out of Northern Arizona University. Hnilicka has been installing sensors across the state all summer.

The project was being spearheaded by Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, under the direction of Mansel Nelson. Initially, the funding for the project came through the institute.

“Dr. Mao received more funding through UAF, another grant that has doubled my project in size and so originally the project intended to put five to 10 air sensors all over the state and instead I’ve been able to put about 21,” Hnilicka said.

Hnilicka is a graduate student who grew up in Nenana and worked for her father’s company, Inland Barge Service. She said her experiences working with communities along the Yukon River prompted her to pursue the rural development degree in graduate school.

In the beginning, the majority of places Hnilicka visited to install sensors were Alaska Native communities, but she was able to target other small communities as more funding came in.

“So my work has brought me all the way from Venetie down to Homer. I have gone on multiple road trips extending as far as Eagle Village and all the way to the south of Palmer as well,” she said, adding that she’s flown to Allakaket and through the Interior.

Sensor installation also depended on wildfire hot spots in the state, according to Hnilicka.

Hnilicka said that, even though the season is coming to an end, she’s still looking to install sensors in interested communities, because the goal is for the sensors to still be collecting data through next year’s wildfire season. 

Interested community members can see data from various sensors around the state in real time on purpleair.com. There’s a map on the website, which shows all of the publicly registered sensors in the state and looks at particulate levels registering on each sensor.

“When I started this project I had no idea about the health implications that poor air quality is associated with,” Hnilicka said.

Now that she’s learned more, she’s decided she’s going to shift the direction of her graduate project to teaching children about air quality.

Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMlocal