Dr. Micah Hahn knows that to prepare and adapt to the impacts of climate change — such as worsening wildfires — communities need data.
“And right now, most communities in Alaska don’t have access to that real-time information,” Hahn said.
As Alaska wildfire seasons grow more intense, access to air quality data is crucial for communities trying to limit smoke exposure. But in most of rural Alaska, that data is sparse or difficult to access.
“‘How bad is it outside? Should I go to fish camp? Should I go collect berries right now or should I wait till tomorrow when the smoke is better?’ People can’t make even basic daily decisions because they don’t have access to that information,” Hahn said.
Hahn is trying to make that access easier.
She and her team at the University of Alaska Anchorage recently secured a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to work with scientists and individual communities across the state to build an online tool to monitor climate hazards like smoke and track community health across the state. She’s hoping it will give rural communities a better picture of how wildfires are affecting them over time, by following, for example, asthma prevalence, mental health or ecological health impacts.
Hahn also hopes having easy access to historical fire information will help communities get more climate resilience funding.
“To not have to spend days pulling all that information — my hope is it will really ease the burden in terms of grant writing for communities and help them pull in funds to support the projects they want to do,” Hahn said.
But in order to present this kind of data in a tool, Hahn needs monitors to collect it.
That’s where the state Department of Environmental Conservation comes in. They’re working to expand the air quality monitoring network into rural Alaska.
The state maintains EPA-standard air quality monitoring in Anchorage, the Mat-Su, Fairbanks and Juneau. But air quality can vary widely and monitoring elsewhere in the state is patchy.
DEC has set up about 15 monitors in coastal, rural communities over the last few years, and they’re waiting on funding from a separate EPA grant to build out a statewide network of about 40 rural monitors. Funding was supposed to arrive in February, and it’s unclear what’s holding it up.
Taylor Borgfeldt, project lead for the rollout, said the department can’t order more monitors until funding comes through, so the network is unlikely to be completed before this year’s fire season.
“Whether or not we’re gonna see that equipment this summer and have meaningful time to get much deployed is kind of a big question mark at this point,” Borgfeldt said.
She said the goal is to complete the network by the end of next summer.
Hahn is still in the planning phases of her project, working with rural communities to understand what they want out of an air quality monitoring tool. As DEC rolls out more monitors and the available data becomes more robust, her team is planning to build an online tool within the next four years.