How Wood Smoke is Dirtying Alaska's Air

In Fairbanks, Alaska, residents are using wood stoves to heat their homes during the frigid winter months. But, smoke created by these wood burners is contributing to some of the worst air pollution in the country. Cathy Cahill discusses air quality in the Last Frontier.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Alaska, the last frontier. Nothing but stunning views, pristine air, right? Well, maybe not. It turns out, cities in the interior of Alaska are recording some of the worst air pollution in the country - in the world. Remember those pictures of smoke-chogged(ph) Beijing? In November, air quality readings in the Alaskan town of North Pole were actually twice as bad as Beijing. What's dirtying the air in Alaska? Well, a lot of it is due to wood. Cities in the interior like Fairbanks and North Pole are some of the coldest inhabited regions on the planet, with temperatures really - regularly dipping to minus 40 below in the winter. But with the price of fuel skyrocketing, Fairbanks residents are turning to one of the most affordable ways to heat their homes: burning wood. And this is causing all kinds of problems for the environment and for people's lungs.

Cathy Cahill is an associate professor of chemistry at the Geophysical Institute in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. She joins us today. Welcome to the program.

DR. CATHY CAHILL: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Let's cut right to the chase, Dr. Cahill. What - why wood is - why is it so bad for us?

CAHILL: Well, it's the function of the concentration of the particles that were getting produced by burning of the wood. So burning wood is something humans have been done for thousands of years and we're somewhat adapted to it. We've seen evidence when there are severe wildfires, people don't get as sick as we really thought they would from - as if they were breathing industrial pollution. So we think there might be a little bit of an impact there. But the concentrations here are just so high that we're seeing adverse impacts in the population, so things like increased stroke risk and kids having asthma issues and cardiovascular effects. So it's not the function of just the burning wood. It's a function of how much wood we're burning.

FLATOW: How much wood are we burning?

CAHILL: We're burning a lot. Being here at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, I get to look down on the Tanana Valley, which contains Fairbanks and North Pole, and what you see is a haze of individual smoke plumes coming out of houses. And surveys have said that it's one of the major ways people in Fairbanks heat, and it has increased dramatically since the price of oil has gone up. It's a pocketbook issue for the people here. You want to stay warm - it's minus 40 - but the oil is $4 to $5 a gallon.

FLATOW: Hmm. And are they using coal also?

CAHILL: There is more of a move to go towards coal. We have some very low-sulfur, low-mercury coal nearby and it burns hot. You produce less particulate matter. It tends to be smaller, which can get deeper in your lungs, potentially cause more of a health effect, but it's a very small portion right now of what is being burned.

FLATOW: Hmm. So what is there about Fairbanks that does not cause the same kind of problem in, let's say, Anchorage?

CAHILL: Well...

FLATOW: Why isn't it happening in Anchorage too?

CAHILL: Well, in Fairbanks, we're at the bottom of the valley. And so when, overnight, the Earth radiates the heat, it gets lost to the atmosphere into space. We end up with cold air near the surface, and that cold air slips down the sides of the mountains and pools in the valley and forms an inversion where you have a very cold pool of air with warm air on top of it. It's a very, very stable situation. So anything emitted in that cold pool can't move up or down vertically because it's pushed down on by that warm air. So it tends to just sit there and stagnate. And this happens in places in the Lower 48. It's just our temperature is more extreme.

And also, we have no sunlight to heat the Earth then during the day to cause the Earth to warm, which then causes hot air to rise and break through the inversion. So during winter, when we have no sunlight, the inversion stays for days. And if we got wind through it, like Anchorage - Anchorage has a lot of wind - we would break the inversion very easily. But because we're at this bottom of the valley and it's very still, the inversion sets up, and we can't move the air.

FLATOW: Yeah. I'm thinking of cities like Denver used to be, down...

CAHILL: Denver...

...had a terrible air pollution problem at one time.

They still have issues. They've been working on it. Truckee, California, is another one. The Central Valley of California is another one. Any place you've got a large, deep valley, you can end up with one of these tight inversions.

FLATOW: Does the state have any plans to do anything about this?

CAHILL: The state is working very hard to protect the health of the people in Fairbanks. And so things from funding studies at the university to say, OK, how can we transfer from wood or oil to electric heat, if we happen to have wind farms nearby that could potentially produce electricity. In case of, you know, what can we do to - the borough is looking at, can we change out the dirty wood stoves and have cleaner burning ones to reduce the emissions?

There are a whole bunch of things that we are trying to do in order to decrease people's burning of wood and, if they're burning wood, have them burn it better. Have it be a drier wood so it burns hotter. The hotter the burn, the less particulate matter you create. It's when a fire is smoldering, so you've got wet wood or you've damped it down for the night, it's a lower temperature burn, and you end up with bigger particles being produced.

FLATOW: Isn't Alaska sitting on a huge storage of natural gas? Is it possible for Fairbanks to tap in?

CAHILL: Oh, it's the holy grail for us. We do have a tremendous amount of natural gas. It's up on the North Slope. And we would like to have a pipeline bring it to Fairbanks. Anchorage has natural gas in the Cook Inlet right next door, so they do have natural gas as an option. Because the pipeline has not been built on natural gas, which burns, of course, so much more cleanly, we're looking at trucking natural gas actually from the North Slope down to Fairbanks and installing a natural gas infrastructure in Fairbanks.

FLATOW: I see another cable TV show here.

CAHILL: You definitely could have one.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You know what I'm talking about.

CAHILL: "Natural Gas Truckers."

FLATOW: No more "Ice Road Truckers." We'll call it "Natural Gas Truckers." Let me go to the phones. Art Nash from Fairbanks is on the line. Hi, Art.

ART NASH: Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

NASH: Thank you. See, I work for a cooperative extension. I'm an assistant energy professor, the statewide energy specialist, so my job is to go out and do outreach to folks who don't take credited classes, people in workshops through the state. So I've been following quite a bit the whole wood burning issue and the alternative fuels and such.

And I just want to reiterate what was stated, that it's human behavior, by and large, that will make a good contribution in reducing some of the emissions. Burning wood hot, dry and fast is kind of our mantra and burning it in stoves that have been well calibrated. There's quite a plethora of stove manufacturers who've started to call up here to see about getting their stoves promoted.

But the other element, I think, is having a testing system, some type of way of credentialing these stoves as to how they burn. And right now, we're kind of working with Alaska Center of Energy and Power and the Cold Climate Research Housing Center in talks to see how do you do that with a third-party, non-proprietary entity.

FLATOW: Dr. Cahill, do you know about this?

CAHILL: I do indeed. The Alaska Center for Energy and Power is doing great work at looking at new ways to burn and how to potentially certify a stove to say that it is clean burning enough so that all of the stoves that come into the community are certified to be clean. You know you're buying something that will not produce large amounts of particulate matter. And in the process of doing that changeover, we're hoping to see the pollution levels come down.

FLATOW: Is there any way of installing a filter or a catalyst or something on the stove that - to retrofit it?

CAHILL: There's been a lot of discussion of retrofitting stoves. Some people have added secondary burn chambers, so you burn the emissions to try to get the maximum amount of hydrocarbons off so that what comes out is cleaner. The problem with things like filters and catalysts is that they clog very quickly and they require a lot of maintenance. And we're looking at the technology, but it doesn't seem to be at a point yet where we can effectively implement it.

FLATOW: Are you at the point where you have to have days where people should not be burning their stoves?

CAHILL: We do, but again, you get to an issue here where for some people, it's their only source of heat. And so you don't necessarily want to say you can't burn. And then there are other people who have an oil furnace, but they're burning wood because they can't afford the oil furnace. So one of the things that has been passed by as an opportunity is maybe we can pay people to use their oil furnace on the days when the particulate matter is bad. I mean, people are being really creative up here on how we can actually solve this problem.

FLATOW: Let's go to Darren(ph) in Homer, Alabama. Hi, Darren.

DARREN: It's Homer, Alaska.

FLATOW: I'm sorry. Alaska.

DARREN: Hey, good morning, Ira. Thanks for the program. I just have a question for your guest. I worked as a land surveyor up in the Arctic for several years and even during the wintertime. And I saw the air pollution from the constant running of vehicles, and I imagine it's very similar to Fairbanks as far as the air pollution and the smog that hangs in the air. And my question for your guest is what does that - what effect does that have up in the Arctic on the very sensitive atmosphere and fragile environment up there? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks a lot. Yeah. Running the engine all the time.

CAHILL: Running the engine all the time is of concern because it does produce particulate matter, and a lot of it will be in the form of elemental carbon, which is one of those greenhouse gas-type equivalents in terms of, it can help warm by trapping the radiation leaving the Earth's surface. It also - if it lands on a white covered snow, if you're putting something black on something white, when the sun comes up and it starts to melt, it may accelerate the melting.

Now Fairbanks and North Pole are a very small community. I mean, the whole area is 100,000 people. And we're surrounded by acres and acres and acres of almost nothing. And when air comes through and it does mix the concentration out, we aren't producing a tremendous amount that moves downwind. More of the concern of moving black carbon from burning-type emissions into the Arctic are places like China and India where there's a lot more burning occurring.

FLATOW: So you need to have the Olympics up there so that you can get people to see the air, you know, like they did in Beijing.

CAHILL: And they did in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It was the cleanest anyone has ever seen Los Angeles.

FLATOW: Well, there's the answer. (Laughing) Let's get the Winter Olympics moved to North Pole, Alaska. And...

CAHILL: We'd love to have it.

FLATOW: And, I guess, there is an out-of-sight-out-of-mind factor to all of this here.

CAHILL: There definitely is. Alaska's kind of at the end of the world as far as most people are concerned. And we don't have a large population, so you don't tend to hear about it. The EPA, of course, is very aware that we're here and we have some issues. But most people in the Lower 48 hear very little about Alaska other than what they see on TV.

FLATOW: Well, Dr. Cahill, I think they might have heard a little bit today.

CAHILL: Well, thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell our story.

FLATOW: I wanted to thank you for taking time to be with us today. Have a good weekend and I wish you only clean air.

CAHILL: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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