Ask a Scientist: Bob Gaza, DEC Air Pollution Meteorologist

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Bob Gaza. Photo provided

Meet one of the scientists monitoring air quality

By Megan Pleté Postol

The New York State Department of Conservation’s Air Resources Division operates a robust statewide program that measures and monitors outdoor air pollution levels and provides an index forecast. air quality index (AQI) for some pollutants that may be harmful to human health and current air quality measurement Data.

DEC air pollution meteorologist Bob Gaza (BG) caught up with the Adirondack Explorer (AE) to break it all down.

AE: What does the Air Resources Division of the DEC do?

BG: We wear many hats in our group. We forecast ozone and particulate matter daily for all of New York State. We have eight forecast regions. We use the AQI, which is a unitless index where 100 equals state and federal standards. It is a health standard, so when we reach 100 we begin to have pollution that affects the health of some of the weakest members of our society who are susceptible to the impacts of ozone and fine particles.

meteorologist Bob Gaza
Bob Gaza, DEC meteorologist. Photo provided

We also perform statistical analysis in preparation for our forecasts. We calculate 10-year averages for ozone and fine particulate matter. We also monitor and calculate trends in ozone and particulate matter. Incidentally, it is a success of the DEC. Precursors to ozone, such as VOCs and nitrogen dioxide, have been in decline for decades, beginning with the Clean Air Act and other additional policies implemented by DEC. We are heading in the right direction there.

In addition, we also perform statistical evaluations of our forecasts. We also forecast daily weather for all of New York State, which includes extended forecasts. We focus on severe weather events, but not exclusively.

There are those from DEC who can go out to monitor air pollution and they need to know what the weather is, so they call us. Other clients inside DEC include the water division: flood protection people, beach erosion people, emergency response inside DEC, and more.

We also have clients outside of DEC, including Emergency Management and the Department of Transportation (DOT), and other organizations, who use our forecasts. We’re the representative of the state, as opposed to the federal government, so that’s the relationship. We cooperate with the national meteorological service and transmit the information there. So whether it’s a major snowstorm in New York, a hurricane heading for the coast, a tornado outbreak, or any number of severe weather events across the state , we are monitoring it.

We are involved in teaching the New York State Rangers Fire Weather Course. We let them know what weather conditions could make fires more likely. Related to this, we provide the daily statewide fire danger map found on the DEC website and in other areas.

One of our last hats that we put on every day is that we look at the dispersion modeling part of the air permit process. Installations need a permit to pollute the air. The companies hire consultants to use a standard EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) model to estimate pollution impacts, conservatively I might add, on the community surrounding the facility. Our job is to make sure the models work properly and the impacts are below state and federal standards.

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AE: Anything else?

BG: I also run the Eastern New York Weather Observing Network, where (meteorologists and others) monitor snowfall and precipitation around the 10 county region surrounding Albany. We are busy bees. And we are in our busy season because pollution impacts are maximized during the summer months, especially ozone.

AE: Why are pollution impacts maximized during the summer months?

BG: The conductor is ozone. Our primary focus and most frequent notices relate to ozone. This is ground ozone. We are not talking about the ozone in the upper atmosphere which protects us from ultraviolet rays.

This is ozone created due to pollution near the ground. It is a secondary pollutant. There are precursors such as VOCs that come from cars, gasoline, factories; and the nitrogen dioxide that comes from it. When sunlight at high temperatures strikes these precursors, it chemically creates ozone. This ozone, when inhaled, can cause problems for people with asthma or other lung conditions or diseases. It can even impact the healthy general public if ozone levels get high enough. So because it takes high temperatures and sunlight, which is strongest in summer, summer is the peak time when we have high ozone levels.

AE: Are there any air quality issues specific to the Adirondacks that you have noticed in your career?

BG: The Adirondacks are not excluded from air pollution problems. We can have reviews for any part of the state, including the Adirondacks. As clean as it is out there, the winds can pull pollution out of urban areas and carry it all the way to the Adirondacks. However, like the rest of the state, air pollution rates are declining.

One of the successes is with acid deposition and acidification of the lakes there. Problems that have existed over decades improve over time.

AE: What changes have taken place during your career?

BG: That’s a great question. When I started (as a meteorologist) 30 years ago, there were no official air quality forecasts. When things were bad, everyone hustled, but there were no daily air quality forecasts. Since I joined DEC, the EPA, specifically EPA Region 1 in Boston, has helped coordinate an air quality forecasting program. We ourselves started this program here in New York State, just as the EPA was beginning to take an interest in official air quality forecasts. At that time, our group was three people, maybe four. As early as the early 1990s, we started predicting ozone. Later, around the turn of the century, this is when fine particle or fine particle forecasting started to come into play.

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