The Expansion of New York’s Network of Wildfire Smoke Sensors

This summer, when wildfires covered a large portion of the state in thick smoke, over half of all New York counties lacked real-time data to assess the health of the air. Currently, there are 28 upstate counties without air quality monitoring, and a Cornell researcher is spearheading an initiative to change that.

The Expansion of New York’s Network of Wildfire Smoke Sensors
Smoke from wildfires burning in Canada shroud the Sage Hall tower, foreground, and McGraw Tower on June 7. A partnership between the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Cornell Cooperative Extension has installed air-quality sensors in 28 New York counties that had none, helping agencies collect real-time data and provide more timely health alerts to the public. Image Credit: Jason Koski/Cornell University

The expansion project, which is a collaboration between Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) and the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health in the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), is almost finished, as of late October.

When the wildfire smoke hit New York, I received questions from partners around the state.

Alistair Hayden, Assistant Professor, Department of Public and Ecosystem Health, Cornell University

His department is concerned with growing environmental challenges that affect the interdependence of people, animals, and ecosystems.

Hayden added, “In talking to officials from around the state, it quickly bubbled up that many upstate communities had no data about their air quality. Smoke and population health were a concern, and we found that 28 of New York’s 62 counties did not have a single air-quality sensor able to detect fine particulate matter of at least 2.5 microns (PM2.5), which is the main component of wildfire smoke.

By placing these sensors in all New York counties, state and federal authorities will be able to monitor smoke plumes in real time, collect data, and send precise, timely alerts to the public. Accurate statistics will inform local public health prevention and response actions, such as school closings, camp warnings, and public service announcements.

According to Hayden, wildfire smoke can be lethal, and its influence is not perceived equally by all people.

He noted, “Current estimates are that over 6,000 deaths that occur each year are due to wildfire smoke. People who work outdoors – or are unsheltered or living in drafty housing – are highly exposed. Those with the highest risk of death or major health impacts include children, older adults and those with diabetes and heart disease.

According to Hayden, more people in the United States have been exposed to intense wildfire smoke than a decade ago, but simple policy improvements can save lives by enhancing the infrastructure for gathering data, notifying populations, and protecting communities.

Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chemung, Chenango, Clinton, Columbia, Delaware, Franklin, Fulton, Genesee, Herkimer, Jefferson, Livingston, Madison, Montgomery, Orleans, Oswego, Otsego, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, Schuyler, Seneca, Tioga, Washington, Wayne, Wyoming, and Yates were the New York counties without air-quality sensors prior to this effort.

Hayden established a task group that included Gen Meredith, professor of practice in the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health (CVM); Corinna Noel, assistant professor of practice in the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health (CVM); Keith Tidball, assistant director of CCE and a senior extension associate; and Adam Hughes, state extension specialist, CCE, to obtain the sensors and deliver them statewide.

Rapid-response financing was given by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

This project was a chance to leverage Cornell’s Department of Public and Ecosystem Health. The benefit is now New York has a more complete statewide network of air-quality sensors.

Adam Hughes, State Extension Specialist, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornel University

According to Tidball, the national-level Extension Disaster Education Network, or EDEN, is a crucial aspect of the land-grant system and purpose because it aids in the communication of critical information during natural disasters.

Cornell Cooperative Extension is always hungry for ways to engage. This was an opportunity to engage in a different area—that is a public health and a natural resources crisis space, and I think that CCE shows once again how they have their fingers on the pulse of community needs.

Keith Tidball, Assistant Director, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University

He further added, “The next time we have wildfires and smoke—and it will happen again—all of us will be very glad that these sensors are in place. Now, we will get more localized, tangible, complete and readily accessible information.

Hayden, Noel, and Tidball are Cornell Atkinson faculty members, while Meredith holds the rank of senior faculty fellow.


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