Keene State College will further its research on how wood burning affects air quality in the city thanks to a $25,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
For years, Keene State researchers have been studying the relationship between air inversions — in which a layer of warm air in the atmosphere keeps cold air, and any particles in that air, close to the ground — and burning wood in causing harmful particles to become more concentrated during those events.
This is a well documented issue in Keene that has been known to trigger air-quality alerts from the N.H. Department of Environmental Services and the National Weather Service in the past.
Keene State is one of 12 organizations across four New England states to receive funding in recently announced awards from the EPA’s Healthy Communities Grant Program. The funds will be used to continue the college’s research efforts, enhance tools that help the public track Keene’s air quality and increase community involvement.
According to Nora Traviss, a Keene State environmental studies professor and the project’s principal investigator, the city generally experiences 10 to 15 air inversions each winter, typically between November and mid-March.
In Keene, which is in a relatively shallow valley and has many residents who heat their homes by burning wood, particles from the smoke reach levels that can have negative health impacts, according to Traviss. Those with respiratory and cardiac issues are especially susceptible, she said, and a goal of the project is to develop an algorithm to help forecast air inversions so community members can adjust their wood-burning habits accordingly.
An increase in “particulate matter is associated with an increase of heart issues, asthma attacks and breathing problems,” Traviss explained. “The more we can reduce air pollution, even as little as 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter, it would have a significant impact on public health.”
According to the EPA, particulate matter should not exceed 35 micrograms per cubic meter over a 24-hour period. Traviss said that while Keene has been known to exceed this limit during air inversions, it hasn’t been consistent for a 24-hour period.
Over the past few years, she said, the Keene State team of students and professors has been working with “citizen scientists” — community members who participate in scientific research — to track these levels using low-cost air monitors installed at their homes. The data from these monitors are uploaded to the Internet and fed in real time to a map at keenecleanair.org.
The map is pretty bare bones at the moment, Traviss said, but some of the grant funding will be used to make the tool more user friendly.
The college is also working with the Southwest Regional Planning Commission on the ongoing air-inversion study. Traviss said the commission’s major role has been public outreach and education, including by sharing information on topics such as how to burn wood so air pollution is minimized.
Elizabeth Abrevaya, a Keene State senior, has been working on the project since she was a sophomore. The first year, she was involved in social media outreach, but since last year, she’s been collecting data about air inversions using drone technology.
She said the drone is used to observe temperature changes high above the ground to determine whether an air inversion is happening and where in the atmosphere it’s located. Money from the grant will support continued use of this technology.
While it has been difficult to get the machine high enough to sense temperature changes without interfering with air-space regulations, she said the drone was able to make it through a 200-foot layer of warm air during an Oct. 21 flight, where she recorded a two-degree temperature differential, between 55.5 and 57.5 degrees. This was the first time the Keene State researchers had been able to observe an air inversion, she said.
The aim of the EPA’s Healthy Communities Grant Program is to work toward solutions to public health and environmental problems facing communities throughout New England.
A total of $372,286 in funding through the program was divided between New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Keene State was one of two New Hampshire recipients, the other being the Lakes Region Planning Commission, which was awarded $34,659 to support a sustainable composting and gardening project.
Abrevaya said the Keene State researchers have made a great deal of progress over the past few years. Now, she said, the top priority is getting the community more involved and spreading awareness, noting that many people she’s spoken to didn’t know air inversions happen or that they could be harmful.
“Once people start realizing that this impacts health, they start caring,” she said. “It’s exciting to be a part of that process and to help make the community a healthier place.”