Ever heard the line about “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” keeping mail carriers from their rounds? Add “polar vortex” and you’ll get an idea of what the small crew of MPCA staff who service the state’s air monitoring network have to deal with during the winter.
The sampling equipment is located in all kinds of places, from urban rooftops to open rural fields. Most of it is automated, drawing samples on daily, hourly or weekly intervals. Some do real-time continuous monitoring, reporting the data to the MPCA by radio link. For most, air is drawn into the instrument to fill canisters or pass through filters to capture chemicals or particles. Once the run is complete the site operators head for the field to collect the samples, troubleshoot problems and reset the monitors for the next run day.
Back in the lab the samples are logged in for analysis by the MPCA Air Quality Lab or processed for shipment to other labs. Occasionally the operators can schedule around the worst Mother Nature can dish out, but not always.
Jeff Cooley, who’s been running monitoring sites throughout Northeastern Minnesota out of the MPCA’s Duluth office for more than 30 years, called this “definitely one of the ugliest winters” he could recall. “The amount of snow early on combined with the sustained cold is hard not just on your body but on the equipment as well.” He’s been using Super Glue to treat the cracks in his fingertips. “Good for anyone who works outdoors. I learned that from the army medics,” he said.
It’s a job for the outdoor-minded to be sure; snowstorms, cold and other weather-related challenges are part of the deal. But not quite like this year. “If the wind is blowing less than 30 miles an hours that’s a good day,” he said. In addition to Jeff, four other operators (Joe Smith, Mike Bauer, Dave Wischnack and Chris Schipp) cover the rest of the state out of St. Paul. They’re supported by calibration specialist Binh Nguyen, network coordinator Kurt Anderson and quality assurance officer Bob Derfus who also log their fair share of days in the field.
Some of Jeff’s sites are on the edge of Minnesota’s wilderness, and those are always tough in winter. But this year, six-foot-high plow banks are creating extra challenges even at his urban sites. Sometimes he climbs up over a tall frozen bank only to slip and roll down the other side with his equipment. Snow pants are a must in his job, “and maybe crampons should be too,” he said.
But better days are on the way, he said. “I can tell spring is coming because last week if I fell off my track I’d go in up to the hip. This week it’s only up to the thigh.”
“Think Punxsutawney Phil in long johns,” he added.
The air monitoring network measures air pollution levels at more than 50 locations across Minnesota, checking for things like fine particles, ozone, mercury and many other pollutants — more than a hundred in all. Data from the network help us know if Minnesota is meeting meets federal and state standards and health benchmarks. It also allows us to forecast and report daily air quality through the Air Quality Index (AQI), and to track trends in air pollution levels over time.
To find out more about the kind of air monitoring the MPCA does, see the Air Monitoring Network Plan. The plan is updated annually, and includes proposed changes to the monitoring network for the upcoming year and whether existing monitoring sites meet federal and state air quality standards.
Watching the health of the air
Frozen pens: Dave Wischnack, an air quality technician at the MPCA, has had to deal with many cold fingers this winter when he checks data and equipment at monitoring stations. "I have to rotate pens out of my pocket. Otherwise they freeze and burst in this kind of cold," says Wischnack. Here he's on the roof of Harding High School in Saint Paul on a -10º F morning.
Toxics monitoring: Machines at monitoring sites capture air samples at intervals and store them in these spherical canisters. These are analyzed by a chemist in the MPCA lab for volatile organic compounds like benzene and toluene.
Old fashioned paper: Although air quality data is logged digitally, maintenance procedures and system quality checks are logged with pen and paper — and cold hands.
Air monitoring tech team: This is the crew who, like postal carriers, deliver the air monitoring data rain or shine — or blizzards with 25-below temps and -50 wind chills. They maintain machines, gather data, fix problems and install new equipment. L to R: Chris Schipp, Dave Wischnack, Mike Bauer, Joe Smith. Not pictured: Jeff Cooley
Dangerous metals monitoring: This device has a fine screen that air gets drawn through it. The gets scanned at our lab for heavy metals such as lead and arsenic.