FAIRBANKS — Fairbanks has the worst year-round air quality out of 187 U.S. cities, according to a 2018 report from the American Lung Association. Now a pair of scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks is teaming up with a group of international researchers to figure out the causes behind air quality problems in northern cities across the world. 

Over the next few years, Bill Simpson and Jingqiu Mao of UAF’s Geophysical Institute will be digging into the science behind air pollutants in Arctic and sub-Arctic cities. 

This is called the Alaska Pollution and Chemical Analysis project, or the ALPACA project. The project was organized by Simpson and Mao; as well as Julia Schmale, from the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland; Kathy Law, from the LATMOS laboratory in France; Kerry Pratt, from the University of Michigan; and Steve Arnold, from the University of Leeds in England. The study also includes 35 other participants from around the world.

Simpson said the group has been looking at different aspects of air quality but found the main problem to be fine particulate matter called PM 2.5. 

Previous studies have found that wood smoke is one of the biggest drivers of fine particulate matter, but Simpson said there are multiple sources of those particulates and that part of this study will be to track down what some of those other sources are and how they react with cold weather. 

“We’re wanting to study what those other sources are, where they come from and how they act in cold and dark conditions which we have here for most of the year,” he said.

This is a new approach, Simpson said, as there have been ample air quality studies in the states as well as across the world but few that dig into how pollutants transform with their environment. 

“There are many northern cities involved,” Simpson said. “We’ve got people from Finland, Russia, the list goes on. It’s really exciting.”

Simpson hopes to gather data with the help of unmanned aerial vehicles in partnership with the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at UAF. The aircraft would carry sensors up through the inversion layer. 

Simpson noted this project could mean big things for Fairbanks. Each winter, as temperatures get lower in Interior Alaska, the ground freezes, creating a layer of cold air directly above the ground called an inversion.

According to the Geophysical Institute, during strong inversions in the coldest months of winter, the air at an elevation of about 300 feet above Fairbanks is 14.4 degrees to 18 degrees higher than the air at ground level, a 2010 study found. Surface-emitted pollutants end up trapped in the lower layer of cold air, affecting air quality in colder communities.

Simpson said the process has already started with a workshop in Fairbanks on May 14-15 during which 44 researchers, including 11 from other countries, came up with a research plan. Next comes the process of finding funding, but Simpson said he’s optimistic. 

“This is a really important problem and we have a lot of interest in the people who came,” Simpson said. “And we were supported by multiple agencies to move forward this effort in the workshop.”

Simpson said the hope is to complete the majority of the study by 2020 or 2021.

Contact staff writer Erin Granger at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.