Climate change impacts on air quality the focus of EPA grant

By Michelle Fredrickson, Voiland College of Engineering & Architecture intern

Lamb-BPULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University researchers have received a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to better understand the impact of climate change on air pollution.

Led by Brian Lamb, Regents professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the researchers will use new modeling techniques to study how pollution levels might change in the western U.S. as the climate warms.

Results will be used by regional air quality managers

The study will focus on predictions of air pollution in the years 2030 and 2050, when global change is expected to have large impacts on air quality. The researchers will look at some factors that impact air quality and are expected to change in the future, such as pollution from distant sources, wildfire emissions and land cover changes.

The researchers in WSU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Research will use a new, fast computer model that can follow air masses and monitor one area at a time throughout a day. Most air quality computer models use a grid, which requires more computation. The complex computer model will allow the researchers to take into account a full range of contributing climate change and human activity factors.

The researchers will check their model’s accuracy by comparing its predictions with air quality measurements taken in recent field campaigns in the Northwest and California.

Results from the simulations eventually will be provided to regional air quality managers.

Small particulate matter most dangerous

Little is known about climate change’s effects on air pollution, especially on small particulate matter – or particles that are less than 2.5 microns in size. Small particles, which are present in soot, smoke or car exhaust, have dramatic impacts on health because, unlike larger particles, they are inhaled directly into the lungs. They are a factor in diseases such as asthma, heart disease and lung cancer.

“Particulate matter is the most serious air quality issue in regards to human health,” said Lamb.

A variety of factors affect particulate levels, including the amount of polluting emissions, air currents and weather. So, for instance, even though western Washington might have higher local emissions than eastern Washington, pollution levels are often lower on the west side because rain reduces the particulate matter in the air.

Sustaining healthy communities

The WSU researchers are collaborating with University of California, Irvine, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The research fits with WSU’s Grand Challenges initiative stimulating research to address some of society’s most complex issues. It is particularly relevant to the challenge of “Sustaining Health” and its theme of promoting healthy communities and populations.


Brian Lamb, WSU Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering,
Tina Hilding, WSU Voiland College of Engineering & Architecture communications coordinator, 509-335-5095,