Braving the weather for air data

By Roberta Burnes

Division for Air Quality

The Kentucky Division for Air Quality (DAQ) operates a network of monitoring stations across the state, each with its own set of air sampling equipment that checks for pollutants.

But the stations don’t run themselves. It is up to environmental scientists to visit the stations regularly, collecting and replacing filters and making sure the equipment is working properly. And their jobs don’t stop for bad weather.

Flooding, snow, heat, ice, and even the occasional Polar Vortex are challenges that any air monitoring specialist in Kentucky must face in the course of his or her daily job.

Take the recent cold snap that struck much of the U.S. east of the Rockies. “The particulate matter monitor locks were completely frozen,” said Jeff Patton, an environmental scientist. “And no amount of warming them in my hands would thaw them out.”  After a quick run for some de-icing spray, Patton was finally able to access the instrument for servicing.

Jeff Patton works on the snowy deck with an air monitor. Photo by Joe Boggs.

Jeff Patton works on the snowy deck with an air monitor. Photo by Joe Boggs.

Monitoring equipment often is located on top of the station building, accessed by ladder. During heavy snow or ice events, staff not only has to travel to the station but also come armed with snow shovels and ice melt just to gain access to the equipment.

Some stations can be especially difficult to reach during flooding or heavy snow. DAQ’s Grayson Lake site, for example, is part of the National Air Toxics Trends network, and its remoteness means air quality measurements here can be used as a baseline for normal, background conditions of pollutant levels. But that remoteness has its challenges.

On rare occasions the road has flooded, and the crew has had to take a boat to access the site. In the wintertime, heavy snow on the winding gravel road make it difficult to reach the station, even in a 4-wheel drive vehicle.  “A few years back, the site received nearly a foot of snow,” said environmental scientist Joe Boggs.  “The last stretch of road was impassable, and we had to hike in with all of our equipment.”

Joe Boggs trudges through the snow. Photo by Jeff Patton.

Joe Boggs trudges through the snow. Photo by Jeff Patton.

Said co-worker Patton, “Joe was forced to grow a beard to cope with Kentucky’s winter weather.”

Since so much of the equipment is outdoors, air monitoring staff don’t have the luxury of sitting at a warm desk to do most equipment checks and servicing. Long underwear are part of the basic wardrobe in the wintertime.  “It all starts with a good base layer,” said environmental scientist Chris Juilfs. “If your base layer, socks or gloves retain moisture they get cold fast.”

Juilfs added that he tries to limit exposure when temperatures are extremely low, making frequent trips inside the station to warm up when necessary.

“In the summertime, we have the opposite problem,” said environmental scientist Rachel Curtis. Temperatures can soar to the 90’s or higher on a typical Kentucky summer day. And while some monitoring equipment is located inside a temperature-controlled shelter, much of it is outdoors with little to no shade.  “During the summer months, I try to perform outside tasks in the early morning when the temperature is cooler,” Curtis said.

Staff are also responsible for maintaining the grounds around the air monitoring stations. That means the occasional run-in with mice, snakes, and spiders.

“Snakes like to get in the small shelter where we store the lawn mower and hunt for deer mice,” said Boggs. Seeing a snake is always a bit of a surprise and can be quite frightening. And while venomous copperheads may be found across Kentucky, the most commonly encountered snakes are harmless garter and rat snakes.

Joe Boggs works with the PM sampler on a warmer day.  Photo by Roberta Burnes.

Joe Boggs works with the PM sampler on a warmer day. Photo by Roberta Burnes.

Throughout Kentucky and across the Southeastern U.S., air quality has improved dramatically in recent decades. Air monitoring demonstrates this success, but it is only through the hard work of air quality professionals that we are able to tell the story.



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