For many Californians, summertime is synonymous with sunshine, sunscreen and smog. Yes, smog, the low-hanging air pollution created partly by vehicle emissions and that's more visible and hazardous when temperatures spike.

While air quality levels can easily be dismissed on clear, sunny days, they're of legitimate concern for many Californians whose daily activities are affected. Just like checking the weather before going to work, those who care for children or the elderly, those who work outdoors and those who are just curious can check their region's air quality levels before stepping outside. California offers this service online, in real time, through open source software.

"We're just on the cusp of going into smog season in California," said Gennet Paauwe, spokeswoman for the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Air Resources Board. "We expect the site to get hit more by people interested in air quality in their area."

What began as a graduate project at California State University, Chico, ended up at the state EPA's Air Resources Board nearly 10 years ago. That project, dubbed the Air Quality and Meteorological Information System, combines historical weather and smog data, maps and graphs that illustrate air quality in specific regions and ozone and fine particle levels. Most recently, a Google maps feature was added in late 2009 that allows users to visually display air quality and ozone levels.

"People who want to know what the air quality is in their town can now find out with the click of a mouse," an Air Resources Board press release said. "The data also plays a vital role in optimizing daily air resources decisions such as agricultural burning and other smoke-related activities."

While users can zoom in and out and focus on specific areas, Air Resources Board Supervisor Mena Shah said the hope is to add features that will let a user input a ZIP code, allowing a more direct search. Another plan is to have the state divided geographically by air basin, Shah said. "We are always looking to enhance and make the site better and more usable," she said.

Among other enhancements planned is a graphical tool that shows how the wind is blowing, Air Resources Board engineer Jagjeet Arce said. Collecting and disseminating upper air data -- the quality of air 5,000 meters or more above ground -- is another potential addition, she said.

And, in what one day may read just like a weather forecast, the board will figure if it can forecast regions' air quality, Arce said.

Since the website's launch several years ago, its popularity and usage has risen in concert with its enhanced features and availability of data, Paauwe said. During peak summer days, it can garner around 10,000 hits a day, and many users are researchers, in academia, the public school system and analysts, Shah said.

"We get a lot of different types of requests," she said. One such example is someone installing solar roof panels, who wanted to know how often they'd need to be cleaned based on soot levels. "By using our site, they can guess how dusty it will be in the area with solar panels," Shah said.

 

Karen Wilkinson  |  Staff Writer