Researchers with Vancouver Island University’s Applied Environmental Research Laboratories (AERL) are trolling the streets of Port Alberni this summer in the name of science.
Faculty, researchers and students involved with the lab have a new world-class research vehicle, and with the co-operation of community partners in the Alberni Valley, they are taking it on the road for the Regional Air Quality Mapping Pilot Project.
“It’s our first big project since completing the van and an excellent example of research in the public interest,” says Dr. Erik Krogh, co-director of the AERL. “We are excited to be working in our own backyard. Our motivation is to develop new techniques for monitoring air quality and to generate high-quality data that can be used by communities to inform the discussion of air quality in our region.”
The Mobile Mass Spectrometry Lab, a.k.a. the Mass Specmobile, is unique in Canada. The cutting-edge technology on-board allows researchers to continuously measure trace-level molecules from a moving vehicle. This information allows them to map out the geographical distribution of atmospheric components that have an impact on regional air quality, including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and greenhouse gases.
“Across BC, there’s a good network of air-quality monitoring stations at fixed locations that are operated by the provincial government,” explains Larissa Richards, a graduate student involved with the project who grew up in Port Alberni. “With our mobile lab, we can fill in the gaps between those stationary sites and provide value-added information about the relative levels of specific molecules using our mobilized mass spectrometer. This is the first time anything like this has been done in the country.”
Project funders include the Port Alberni Port Authority, Catalyst Paper, Finishing Touches and RE/MAX Mid-Island Realty. These community contributions are matched two-fold by VIU’s Regional Initiatives Fund – a partnership between VIU, the province and community partners that enables student participation in meaningful, community-based, applied research.
In addition, the project includes the co-operation of the Port Alberni Air Quality Council, the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, the City of Port Alberni and the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District.
“We are thankful for both the material and intellectual contributions that our community partners have made to this project,” Krogh says.
In late 2017, the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy released a number of air zone reports for the province, which showed that Port Alberni exceeds the national air quality standard. This is based on a daily concentration of fine particulates, micoscopic in size, that are associated with respiratory and cardiovascular impacts on human health.
“Port Alberni is a high priority for the Ministry in terms of providing the technical support and strategic funding,” said Natalie Suzuki, Air Quality Science Specialist, during a presentation to city council last year.
The ministry’s goals are to determine what conditions and sources contribute to this poor air quality, and also to determine what can be done to reduce emissions.
Suzuki noted that a couple of sources stand out: wood stoves and open burning, as well as periods of calm, light winds in the fall and winter that tend to trap pollutants in the Valley.
Sampling for the VIU air quality pilot project will take place this summer and then again during winter. The information will be shared with the community in 2019.
Richards says if people see the van and want to know more, they are welcome to approach.
“We’re happy to talk to people when we’re out and about, and show them how the van and the technology on-board works,” she says. “People usually think it’s pretty cool.”
The Mobile Mass Spectrometry Lab and its equipment was developed at VIU by Krogh and Dr. Chris Gill, co-directors of the AERL, thanks to a $1-million investment from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and BC Knowledge Development Fund.
To learn more, visit AERL.viu.ca.