When extreme and dangerous air pollution events strike and blanket the air with hazardous levels of pollution, it causes a major threat to public health and safety. It’s also exceedingly challenging to monitor. The pollutants move quickly through the atmosphere, and can undergo chemical transformations from one form to another, leaving it difficult to predict the level of human exposure.
In the United States, the primary sources of outdoor air-quality data are from ground-based, government-regulated air-quality monitoring systems that measure pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter. Due to the high cost of these high-performing systems, the number of monitors measuring air quality across a geographic area is relatively sparse. As a result, these systems are not well-suited for monitoring extreme air-quality events, in which pollutant levels can be exceedingly high and variable over relatively short distances.
In a new study, researchers in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) demonstrate an alternate approach for monitoring extreme air-quality events with the use of low-cost sensor (LCS) networks. The work was carried out in mid-2018 on the Island of Hawaii, when the eruption of the Kilauea volcano filled the air with toxic sulfurous gases and particles (“volcanic smog” or “vog”). In response, the researchers developed and deployed a network of 40 low-cost sensors around the island to monitor the vog in real-time, which provided much higher resolution of localized levels of air pollution than existing air-quality measurements.