Training the Next Generation of Air Quality Forecasters

Yang Zhang

In the Spring of 2017, Dr. Yang Zhang visited the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) during a sabbatical to discuss her research on air quality and its forecasting. Following the presentation of her research, the WMO, a United Nations agency tasked with facilitating international cooperation on meteorology and climatology, commissioned what would become a multi-year undertaking for Zhang: the development of a training book on best practices for air quality monitoring and forecasting.

The book, Training Materials and Best Practices for Chemical Weather/Air Quality Forecasting, was developed to support WMO’s mission to provide training and promote best practices in real-time air quality forecasting worldwide,” said Zhang, Professor and Associate Chair for Research of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University. Zhang says that the document will be especially useful for developing nations, many of which currently lack the infrastructure and established experts to model and forecast air quality using the latest cutting-edge practices. She has already used the book in training workshops in Africa and South America and has more planned ahead. “It has been published online and will be updated as a live document based on the latest development in this research area,” said Zhang. “WMO plans to distribute to all major meteorological offices worldwide.” As a member of the WMO’s Global Air quality Forecasting and Information System Initiative (GAFIS), Zhang is co-leading WMO’s effort in capacity building in this critical area and will maximize the use of this book for training through various training workshops and outreach activities.

Published by the WMO in 2020, this 576-page training book encompasses the combined efforts of 49 coauthors from 15 countries, 35 case providers from 15 countries, and additional 15 reviewers from WMO and other countries. The effort was coordinated by Professor Yang Zhang, who served as the book’s lead editor and as a lead author or co-author of twelve of its chapters and sections.

Air Quality Monitoring and Forecasting: A Crucial Tool for Governments

The contents of the book are vitally important. Globally, the importance of air quality to all aspects of life, from public health to the economy are becoming increasingly clear- such as in previous work by Zhang revealing an estimated $1 billion a year shortfall in US perennial crop yields due to ozone pollution, and estimated over 63,000 saved lives and over $500 billion saved costs through reducing surface fine particle levels by a few g m-3. In a 2020 paper in the journal Nature Climate Change, Zhang and collaborators identified how policy changes towards pollutants in China could save upwards of 13,000 lives a year. Our ability to understand our atmosphere has immediate public health and economic importance.

This training manual represents a download of knowledge from the world’s leading atmospheric scientists in a concerted effort to strengthen society’s tools for understanding the complex and at times enigmatic science of our atmosphere. That gaseous blanket is a planet-scale puzzle of physics and chemistry, with variables numerous and dynamic: moisture pulled from oceans, dust and heat rising from deserts, radiation from our sun, the seasonal breath-like capture and release of carbon dioxide from forests, chilling currents from the polls, billowing clouds of soot particles from wildfires and volcanoes, and, increasingly important, the ever-growing output of greenhouse gases from humans.

Understanding, monitoring, and forecasting air quality require complex tools and massive computing power. Over her career, Zhang has served as the forefront of the endeavor to understand our atmosphere and has contributed to the development of many of the now essential techniques and modeling practices covered in the book. As WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas writes in the book’s foreword, “those models become progressively complex and would be difficult to adapt for real-time deployment and operation of [Chemical Weather and Air Quality Forecasting] without adequate training and guiding materials.”

The Future of Air Quality Monitoring and Forecasting

With the book published, Zhang is looking to further move our understanding of atmospheric chemistry and air quality. From her Clean Air, Smart City, And Digital Earth (CASCADE) Lab on Northeastern’s Boston campus, she is charting the next frontier of air quality monitoring and forecasting at hyperlocal scales such as at home, in buildings, and on streets. Traditionally, air quality monitoring and modeling are done at the regional and urban scale or higher, explains Zhang, but she envisions a new transdisciplinary system in which we develop the tools to monitor the quality of the air we breathe at critical points throughout a city. “Air quality can vary greatly even over relatively small distances,” says Zhang. “The quality of air on the sidewalk outside a building can be quite different from that measured at a window a few stories above.” Such a surveillance system could help policymakers design cleaner cities and help public health officials better understand the effects of exposure to polluted air on long-term health outcomes at hyperlocal scales.

Related Faculty: Yang Zhang

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering