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Heat and sunlight… but no Ozone Alerts yet?

Summer heat has finally arrived in Kansas City with highs in the mid-to-upper 90s this week and plenty of sunshine to go along with it. When we talk about Ozone Alerts, we talk about the ingredients that lead to high ozone days — heat and sunlight are two big factors — so why haven’t we seen Ozone Alerts this week?

One factor is wind speed. The breezes we’ve had over the past few days have been just enough to keep us solidly in the Yellow Skycast range. Another factor is the pollution blown in from upwind areas. Cities to our south and west aren’t building up high ozone concentrations either, so we’re not seeing a lot of ozone transported our way.

We’re certainly keeping an eye on all of these pieces of the ozone puzzle. If we think there’s cause to issue an Ozone Alert, you can find that information on Twitter or Facebook, via email or from the many media outlets in the Kansas City region that recognize how important sharing air quality information is to their readers, listeners and viewers.

Just as a refresher, the Skycast chart below explains what the colors mean. We normally see lots of yellow days during the summer, but we don’t issue an Ozone Alert until the levels are anticipated to be in the Orange range or higher. So far this year we’ve only issued one Orange Skycast, which — especially when compared to last summer — is incredibly quiet. By this time in 2012 we’d issued more than 30 Ozone Alerts. Kansas City is no stranger to late season spikes in ozone levels, though. In 2011 we issued Ozone Alerts as late as Oct. 5. Even though we are getting to the end of what’s normally seen as the busy time for ozone formation, we’re not out of the woods quite yet.

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Ozone Season is Here!

air-qualty-graphNow that we’re well into the 2013 ozone season, you might be wondering how you can be notified if there is an Ozone Alert. Wonder no more — there are many ways to get this information.

      1. Email — You can personalize how you receive forecasts in your inbox with EnviroFlash. Select the “orange” level or higher if you only want to hear about Ozone Alert days, or select a lower level if you’d like to receive forecasts for green or yellow days too.
      2. Text Message — If you’d rather receive notifications via SMS (text message), you can also subscribe using EnviroFlash. Instructions for each cell phone provider are linked next to the Email Address field when you’re filling out your subscriber information. (Normal text message rates apply.)
      3. Social Media — We’re all over social media! Get daily SkyCasts through our Twitter account (@airqkc), Ozone Alerts and other good info on our Facebook page, or check out some of the videos we’ve posted on our YouTube channel.
      4. Traditional Media  We make sure all of the local television and radio stations and newspapers know when high ground-level ozone concentrations are expected so they can pass along the word to you. If your favorite source isn’t letting you know, tell us and we’ll make sure they know how important that information is to their viewers/listeners/readers/you!
      5. Kansas City Scout Message Boards — The lighted message signs along the drive home that alert drivers to accidents, construction and expected travel times also display Ozone Alerts as soon as one is forecast for the next day. The message is also displayed throughout the day of the Ozone Alert.
      6. Public Transportation — The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) and Johnson County Transit offer reduced fares on Ozone Alert days, but the buses also flash OZONE ALERT DAY messages on their on-board signs. Even if you’re not riding the bus, you can see the message as the bus passes by.

You might also find Ozone Alert information on message boards at your local health department or widgets on your local government’s website. We are always looking for new ways to reach out and let everyone know about air quality in the Kansas City region. Have a good idea for another place for us to spread the word? Let us know at AirQ@marc.org.

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Air Quality Index: the what, how and why

The What

An Ozone Alert is issued when ozone levels are expected to be in the “orange” range or higher on the Air Quality Index (AQI). But what does that really mean, and why does the AQI stay the same even when the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) have changed over the years?

The AQI is a health-based scale meant to represent how healthy the air is each day. In general we only hear about the AQI during ozone season (April 1–Oct.31 of each year) in the Kansas City area, but the AQI is actually calculated year-round. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates an AQI for five pollutants:

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  1. carbon monoxide
  2. nitrogen dioxide
  3. ozone
  4. particulate matter
  5. sulfur oxides

The How

The AQI also alerts the public about which pollutant is expected to have the highest concentrations that day. As I mentioned above, ozone is Kansas City’s main pollutant, but on days where our air is impacted by fire (i.e., wildfires or rangeland burning) or in areas where there is a high percentage of residential wood-burning furnaces, particulate matter can be the main pollutant. There is only one AQI issued for a metropolitan area at a time, so while a cold day in January will have ozone levels well into the green category, particulate matter could cause a city’s AQI to creep into the yellow range. This doesn’t happen often in Kansas City, but it is not unheard of. You can always find the AQI at the AirNow website, and during ozone season on the MARC website (as well as Twitter, Facebook or your own email!)

The Why

Why does the AQI stay the same when the NAAQS (pronounced “nacks”) change? The numbers on the AQI scale correspond to the current national standards for each pollutant. For example, the current ozone standard is 75 parts per billion (ppb). If a daily air quality forecast indicates that the ozone level is expected to exceed 75ppb averaged over an eight-hour period, the AQI would be 101 or higher. That’s when we’ll issue an Ozone Alert to call attention to and help everyone understand the health impacts of poor air quality on that day. Last year’s summer was particularly hot and dry, and in Kansas City we saw 29 days that exceeded 75ppb. Particulate matter also has a level that is considered unhealthy (higher than 12 micrograms per cubic meter on an annual basis) and that level would also be indicated by an AQI of 101 or higher.

By using a consistent, color-based scale for all pollutants, it’s easier for us to communicate whether the air is healthy or not. The AQI is your one-stop shop for health-based air quality information. Still have questions? Email us at AirQ@marc.org!

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