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Teaming Up to Improve Local Ozone Forecasts

EPA and NOAA scientists join forces to test the use of high-tech tools for predicting local ground-level ozone.

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Ground-level ozone is an air pollutant that can be harmful to breathe, and can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can exacerbate bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma, and even damage crops, trees, and other vegetation.

Because ground-level ozone can be such bad news, it’s important to know when it occurs. Armed with that knowledge, individuals in affected communities can take steps to protect their health—such as staying inside during high, “ozone alert days.” This can be particularly important for people who suffer from respiratory ailments. In addition, knowing that ozone levels are high can motivate people to take actions that help mitigate the problem, such as carpooling or taking mass transit. (Since tailpipe emissions can contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, reducing the amount of miles that people drive in their community can help.)

There is another big challenge, however. Not every town or city in the United States has capability to accurately forecast ozone concentrations. This can mean that citizens are relying on ozone forecasts generated for locations and environmental conditions that are miles away. 

The National Air Quality Forecast Guidance, a publically-available set of ozone computing tools, can help. Collaboratively developed by scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the guidance offers an aid for local agencies in making next-day forecasts of ozone concentrations for their communities.

The effectiveness of the guidance was recently evaluated by EPA and NOAA scientists by comparing the results generated via the guidance with real-world data and ozone forecasts developed using other statistical approaches.

Their findings indicate that the guidance can provide accurate, localized ozone forecasts, including ozone predictions for smaller cities and towns that are not covered by AirNow — a web-based clearinghouse that offers daily air quality index forecasts for approximately 300 of the largest metropolitan areas of the United States. The AirNow database was developed in 1998 by EPA, NOAA, Environment Canada, and the U.S. National Park Service along with state, local and tribal air agencies.

Now, thanks to the new guidance, staff in local agencies — whether they be seasoned air quality veterans or forecasters with limited experience — should be able to develop accurate ozone forecasts for their communities. Furthermore, the guidance can be applied anywhere in the continental United States.

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