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Extreme Wildfires Turn Smoke Apps Into the New Weather Apps

Private enterprises are pushing the technology forward.

A person sits in Delores Park as smoke and fog hang over the skyline in San Francisco, California on Sept. 9, 2020.

A person sits in Delores Park as smoke and fog hang over the skyline in San Francisco, California on Sept. 9, 2020.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

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For weeks, smoke has blanketed the west coast. The Bay Area has seen a vast improvement in the past few days, but terrible air lingers in Portland and Seattle. Millions of people have been furiously checking the air quality ratings in their neighborhood regularly. On the worst days, in some places the Air Quality Index (AQI) measured 600. Readings over 150 trigger emergency health warnings if a person is exposed for 24 hours. For many, the only way to confront the smoke- and ash-filled days was with the help of AQI apps.

While weather forecasting has evolved over hundreds of years, air quality monitoring is a relatively young field. Consider that the Environmental Protection Agency only confirmed the detrimental health effects of air pollution on lungs and cardiovascular health in 2000. Four years later, the agency introduced a daily air quality index for 400 U.S. cities, based on data from its own monitoring sites. Private enterprises are driving the technology forward, by adding lower priced sensors that collect hyper local air quality data on the ground, and combining this with EPA data along with air quality measurements from other entities like CAMS, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, which continuously measures European air quality.