WSU lab provides critical air quality forecasting tool

AIRPACT-forecast-smallPULLMAN, Wash. – As wildfire smoke covers the Northwest this summer, residents have turned to local, state and federal agencies for up-to-date air quality information. A sophisticated tool developed by Washington State University is a key piece in providing critical air quality forecasts.

Created in 2001 in WSU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, AIRPACT (Air Indicator Report for Public Awareness and Community Tracking) was among the first high-resolution, Web-based air quality forecast systems in the country. It is used by agencies in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

“We use it just about every day when making our smoke forecasts,’’ said Ranil Dhammapala, a section manager for the state ecology department’s air quality program. “It is a critical piece for informing communities on what kind of air quality they should expect.’’

Weather, smoke behavior computed

AIRPACT uses weather forecasts and pollution emission data to predict concentrations of ozone, particulates and other pollutants as they are emitted, transformed, removed and transported across the region.

AIRPACT map shows hourly projected wildfire smoke concentrations for the region.

The system receives wildfire data from satellites and produces air quality forecasts nightly. Especially significant during fire season is AIRPACT’s ability to model particles under 2.5 micrometers in size, a component of wildfire smoke that poses substantial public health risks.

The model considers factors such as how smoke pools in different areas, how much a smoke plume is likely to rise into the sky and how the weather will interact with the terrain. Meteorologists use the model in conjunction with several other tools, including fire behavior reports and satellite imagery.

Pacific Northwest ahead in forecasting

His department has fielded many requests for forecasts and data analysis, Dhammapala said: “People want to know why the air isn’t good and why they’re having breathing problems.”

At the same time, it’s not obvious from looking out the window just where the smoke is coming from or what it’s going to be like from hour to hour. Air quality forecasting is in a similar stage as weather forecasting about 30 years ago, said Clint Bowman, a state Department of Ecology air dispersion modeler and meteorologist.

Back then, meteorological models were less sophisticated and forecasters spent a lot of time and effort trying to understand why their models did or did not do well. Today, users of the air quality forecasting technology need a great deal of skill and understanding of meteorology.

Still, the Pacific Northwest is a leader in sophisticated air quality monitoring.

“We are unique,’’ Bowman said. “There is no other place in the country that has the information we do.’’

Grant furthers study of large fires

Coordination among a three-state consortium of agencies has been critical, he said. The consortium funds WSU’s air quality modeling work as well as a meteorology model at the University of Washington.

The WSU researchers recently received a three-year federal Joint Fire Science Program grant to improve AIRPACT. They are working in collaboration with scientists at the state ecology department, U.S. Forest Service and University of Utah.

The team will work to improve the model for large wildfires, which can change the weather and meteorology in an area and make smoke predictions more difficult. The researchers will also develop smartphone applications to provide convenient access to air quality forecast data.

To see hourly projected wildfire smoke concentrations for the region, visit Find more fire and smoke information at the Washington Smoke Information blog at


Joseph K. Vaughan, WSU Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, 509-335-2832,
Brett Stav, WSU Voiland College communications, 509-335-8189,