Characterization of the Ambient Air Quality in Syracuse, NY, and Identification of Its Origins

How is the outdoor air quality in Syracuse, New York? That depends on a number of factors. Is it a hot humid day in July or a cold clear one in January? Maybe it is early Sunday morning, or afternoon rush hour with major construction on the interstate highway.

Pollution in the atmosphere can induce a wide variety of adverse effects including: increased mortality and morbidity in the public, deterioration of buildings and monuments, acidification of lakes and rivers, and forest and crop damage. Although the US has substantially improved air quality over the past 30 years, there are still a number of problems that are attributed to air pollution.

By modeling the evolution of traffic emissions in a similar fashion to that done for freeways in Los Angeles, Max Zhang, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University, developed models that relate automated traffic data and weather-related measurements to predict pollutant concentrations.

A team of researchers led by Philip Hopke, Bayard D. Clarkson Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for Air Resources Engineering and Science (CARES) at Clarkson University, collected data at two towers—one at Upper Onondaga Lake Park and the other near the SyracuseCoE headquarters in downtown Syracuse. Myron Mitchell, Professor and Director of the Council on Hydrologic Systems Science, Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, also contributed his expertise, maintaining the collection towers and providing modeling data.

Studies from around the country have established that vehicles play a major role in a community’s air quality. The Clarkson researchers suspect that the two major highways that cross Syracuse—I-81 and I-690—have a definite impact on the city’s surrounding air. These two highways, adjacent to the SyracuseCoE headquarters site, are being monitored with two Autoscope traffic cameras mounted on the top of the Urban Ecosystem Observatory tower, providing real-time traffic volume, speed and size classes. A graphical user interface is also being used to process the traffic data. Now that the SyracuseCoE headquarters construction has been completed, most of the data has been collected and the team is finalizing the analysis of the information.

“We are analyzing the wealth of collected data to determine the impacts of the interstate highways on local air quality. These results should help inform local officials as they make choices regarding the future for I-81,” says Hopke.

Using their model based on actual information about Syracuse, the researchers intend to develop other models that can predict future pollutant concentrations using easily collected traffic data. With this kind of information, controlling and improving the quality of the air we breathe every day becomes a possibility.