Just breathe: Ozone forecaster unveiled at University of Houston, available via Web

Air quality group brings relief to public, help to Texas with new tool

HOUSTON, Aug. 21, 2006 -- People with asthma or other respiratory problems can breathe a sigh of relief thanks to University of Houston professors who have recently unveiled a forecasting system that provides air quality data on ozone conditions.

With the intent to not only increase public awareness, but also help Texas manage air quality issues, the Institute for Multi-dimensional Air Quality Studies (IMAQS) at UH has been operating an air quality forecasting system for a year that has been tested, fine-tuned and now determined ready for public use. Over the course of this past year, the system has been expanded and improved to serve the entire eastern half of Texas, including the Houston and Dallas metropolitan areas.

"Our ozone forecaster is more localized than others and goes into further detail," said Daewon Byun, director of IMAQS and a professor in UH's geosciences department. "For instance, while the ozone conditions may be rated unhealthy in downtown Houston on a given day, suburbs like Sugar Land and The Woodlands may actually be experiencing a good day that still is safe for outdoor activities in those specific areas. Other days, the opposite is true with downtown-area ozone levels being lower than in certain suburbs."

By clicking on the local, regional or national maps at http://www.imaqs.uh.edu/ozone_forecast.htm, the public can obtain a map view of daily maximum ozone levels color-coded with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health alert index. Also included are links to animations of a two-day forecast in one-hour increments. These maps and animations can help individuals, especially those with respiratory problems, plan their day's outside activities. The Web site is updated daily with the most recent 48-hour local, regional and national forecasts, providing graphical analysis of the onset, intensity, duration and area of poor air quality conditions via access to hourly data from 165 East Texas air pollution monitors. The near real-time hourly air pollution and meteorological data, air quality indices and animations from 3-D simulations performed by IMAQS use the EPA's Community Multiscale Air Quality modeling system co-developed by Byun in 1999 while at the EPA before coming to UH.

Byun stresses that while the traditional ozone season lasts from June through September, Houston suffers the consequences all year long. In a related project, UH's IMAQS is collaborating with Winifred Hamilton, director of the Baylor College of Medicine's Environmental Health Section, who is using Byun's air quality data in the patient-care arena and in her work to increase public awareness of the connection between health and the environment.

Accurate meteorological and photochemical modeling efforts are essential to support the efforts for establishing the State Implementation Plan by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Byun said. Houston currently is in severe noncompliance, experiencing more than 30 days per year of high ozone conditions. The EPA's ozone standard allows just one day per year of such conditions, and the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria area must meet these existing standards by 2007 or risk losing highway funding, among other penalties.

"The air quality forecasting is made by the photochemical air quality models that take data on both manmade and biogenic emission values and meteorological inputs, coupled with descriptions of the physical and chemical processes that occur in the atmosphere," Byun said. "We then mathematically and numerically process the information to yield predictions of air pollutant concentrations as a function of time and location."

With funding from the EPA, TCEQ, Texas Environmental Research Consortium and Houston Advanced Research Center, Byun has collaborated with researchers at UH from the fields of geosciences, mathematics, computer science and chemistry on a number of projects to build this ozone forecasting system. The TCEQ also provides key emissions input and technical assistance for the project.

Past IMAQS initiatives leading up to the success and unveiling of this air quality tool include:

  • photochemical modeling of ethylene and propylene emissions from petrochemical factories to understand how these chemicals react in the atmosphere to eventually form ozone,
  • development of an air quality prediction system for studying the impact of forest fires on regional air quality,
  • studying the urban heat island phenomenon that engulfs a city like Houston with hot air generated by the radiant heat emanating from the many paved areas and buildings,
  • and observing how changes in the urban environment affect air pollution.

"Improving Houston's air quality cannot begin without the level of detail that Byun and his colleagues have put into this research," said Jack Casey, chair of UH's geosciences department in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. "Developing the ozone forecasting system and its continuous verification and improvement with the help of regional chemical measurement programs is an important first step in understanding Houston's air quality problem. Because of the smaller local grid spacing, the Web site is better than any other state or national forecasting Web site for ozone alerts in this region. With the release of these forecasts on a daily basis, Byun and IMAQS are performing an important service for the Houston and southeastern Texas community."

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About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas' premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 35,000 students.

About the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
The UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, with nearly 400 faculty members and approximately 4,000 students, offers bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees in the natural sciences, computational sciences and mathematics. Faculty members in the departments of biology and biochemistry, chemistry, computer science, geosciences, mathematics and physics have internationally recognized collaborative research programs in association with UH interdisciplinary research centers, Texas Medical Center institutions and national laboratories.

For more information about UH, visit the university's Newsroom at www.uh.edu/newsroom.

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