On May 7, 2016, many Minnesotans woke to a heavy, smog-like haze and the strong smell of smoke in the air. It got worse as the day wore on, with smoke from several large forest fires in Canada spreading south across the state. At the MPCA, the incident became known as the Great Mother’s Day Smokeout. That event coupled with wildfire smoke throughout July of the previous year, prompted the agency to collaborate with the Minnesota Department of Health to reevaluate its air quality index (AQI) forecasting program. Their innovative solution recently earned MPCA a State Government Innovation Award from the UofM Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Smoke events like those are important for people with respiratory difficulties to know about, so they can plan to protect themselves. But these events challenged the MPCA’s system for forecasting air quality at the time, which was limited to the Twin Cities and Rochester. The agency’s meteorologists seized the opportunity to improve the forecasting system.
In June (of this year), the MPCA launched a new statewide air quality index (AQI) forecasting program that expands forecasting from two to 17 locations. The forecasting used to be handled by a contractor; now, it’s done in-house by MPCA meteorologists. The meteorologists innovated with artificial intelligence, automated weather prediction, and meteorological expertise to create the new system. Not only is the new AQI forecasting program quicker and more responsive to weather changes, it also saves the state $50,000 per year in external forecasting fees, and potentially up to $200,000 for a similar statewide forecasting service.
“Not only is our new AQI forecasting program quicker and more responsive to weather changes, it also saves the state a lot of money,” said MPCA Air Assessment Manager Frank Kohlasch. “It would cost us several hundred thousand dollars to get the same services from the contractor we were using for the old system.”
The effectiveness of the new system earned the MPCA the Humphrey School recognition. To see the innovative system’s new features, check out a short video at http://sgia.umn.edu/sgia-2017-award-winners.
Air quality alerts are now much easier for the MPCA to issue, and they’re more timely and accurate. Our meteorologists worked with the National Weather Service (NWS) to create customized alerts so that any of the six NWS offices serving Minnesota can also help get alerts out quickly. They also improved the Minnesota Air mobile app to automatically provide notifications when air quality alerts are issued, and collaborated with the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Transportation to improve the alert messages on MnDOT’s freeway advisory signs.