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Cornell brings wildfire smoke detectors to every New York county

           Canadian wildfire smoke surrounds the setting sun in Northern New York
Pat Bradley
Canadian wildfire smoke surrounds the setting sun in Northern New York

Before smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted into northeastern states this spring and summer, about half of New York counties were equipped with air quality sensors.

In October, researchers at Cornell University announced that all 62 counties are now outfitted with a sensor. The devices can detect fine particulate matter of at least 2.5 microns – 28 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Cornell Cooperative Extension and the New York State Association for County Health Organizations helped install the sensors that are linked to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Fire and Smoke Map. The online tool allows users, including state environmental and health officials, and policymakers, to view real-time atmospheric data.

To learn more, WAMC’s Lucas Willard spoke with Corinna Noel, Assistant Professor of Practice in Cornell’s Department of Public and Ecosystem Health.


Yeah, so, kind of observing, we saw that over half the counties or near half the counties in New York State did not have air quality sensors prior to this summer. And so, this initiative has really worked to fill those gaps.

So, what can you tell me about this wildfire smoke this past summer? There were days where it seems foggy, almost or misty. It's hard to see the horizon. The sun looks funny. But what makes wildfire smoke different than, say, a campfire smoke in your backyard?

Yeah, so I think one thing is, it's definitely more noticeable, right? It's not isolated, you can actually see it. And if it's really bad, you can smell it. So, wildfire smoke has been shown to be actually more harmful than other types of pollution. And that is mainly due to, or it's been theorized to be, thinking, if you think about the type of things that are burned in a wildfire, right? It's electronics and people's houses. It's old building materials. So, this is in contrast to like a campfire, the smoke from a campfire, where you're just burning, typically, you're just burning wood. And so, you know, we should be concerned about wildfire smoke. It definitely presents a hazard that could potentially be worse than typical air pollution that we experience.

Now, I wanted to ask you about particle size. So, if I'm in a state a few hundred miles away from fires, that may be, in this case burning in Canada, do the smaller particles of the wildfire smoke actually travel farther?

I don't know about traveling further, but the smaller particles are more harmful, because it's thought that, you know, you breathe it in, and then they affect the body in different ways as compared to those larger particles. And so, when we're talking about wildfire smoke, we're mainly concerned with particulate matter of around 2.5 microns and potentially even smaller.

The wildfires of 2023, I think, were surprising to a lot of people in an area of the country that normally doesn't experience such large smoke plumes so regularly. The sensors are now installed so you must be worried about future similar events.

Yeah, we definitely are. I mean, we see this project as kind of preparing us for this next time that we get wildfire smoke waves. Unfortunately, we think that these waves are here to stay and, You know, in future years we are going to have similar problems. At least now we have some data that can inform local decision making, either from public health or other agencies that are involved in kind of the response to this. And hopefully it will also be, help us more on that local level to be able to inform consumers, citizens when there are issues in their area that they should be worried about.

So, Cornell was able to help New York get sensors in every one of its counties, but I'm sure that's rather unique. Most states don't have wildfire sensors in every county.

Yes, I think that's true. Based on what, you know, we've observed on that, EPA’s wildfire and smoke map, which is actually nationally, if you look at that you can definitely see gaps in air quality sensors across the United States. So I think there is work to be done on more of a broader level to make sure that we're having, we're being able to capture and provide in a real time manner high quality air quality data specific to wildfire smoke.

Now, will the sensors be running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year?

That is the goal. So, partners, Cornell Cooperative Extension partners in each of the counties have installed these sensors and they're connected to a power source, also connected to Wi Fi. So basically, they are providing real time data that basically automatically gets uploaded and connected to that EPA’s wildfire and smoke map. And this will provide kind of continuous monitoring, barring any major issues.

Copyright 2023 WAMC Northeast Public Radio. To see more, visit WAMC Northeast Public Radio.

Lucas Willard