Utah’s striking summer sunsets, with their fiery oranges and reds, can easily take the breath away. Unfortunately, their cause — wildfire smoke and windblown dust events — make that reaction not so much a figure of speech but a dangerous reality.

Over 40% of Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of outdoor air pollution. Utah’s combination of complex terrain, smog, inversions, proximity to western wildfires, and desert dust makes it a hotspot for poor air quality, and in turn difficult to accurately assess and address. The bad air’s health hazards are quite clear however, especially in children and student athletes.

A University of Utah team, led by Kerry Kelly, associate professor of chemical engineering in the U’s John and Marcia Price College of Engineering, has been researching and developing ways to mitigate and monitor Utah’s air quality on a neighborhood level. Now, after winning the million-dollar stage 2 National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Civic Innovation Challenge they’re set to implement a new tool to help the state cope with air pollution.

Kerry’s collaborators at the U include Heather Holmes, associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Ross Whitaker, professor in the Kahlert School of Computing, Derek Malia, research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science, and Sara Yeo, associate professor in the Department of Communications.

Given the civic nature of the project, the team has also engaged a number of governmental and community partners, including Jesse Joseph, Asthma Program Coordinator, Alejandra Maldonado, Health Hazards Assessment Team Manager, and Nichole Shepard,  Asthma & Healthy Aging Program Manager, in Utah’s Department of Health and Human Services; Lisa Walker, Licensed Athletic Trainer, Springville High School; Brenan Jackson, assistant director of the Utah High School Activities Association; and Nancy Daher, an air quality scientist at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

The Civic Innovation Challenge is a national competition that seeks to make significant impacts on communities’ natural disaster resilience via community-university partnerships.

Kelly’s team, “Community Resilience through Engaging, Actionable, Timely, high-rEsolution Air Quality Information” (CREATE-AQI) was one of 50 groups to receive a $50,000 planning grant in stage one. They now are among the 20 groups receiving the full million-dollar award.

Their plan leverages the group’s extensive experience in air quality sensors and data analysis to expand the capabilities and reach of the University of Utah’s air quality sensing infrastructure. Improving on Utah’s current forecasting framework, the project will add dust detection and become much more automated. With cost effective sensors deployed at athletic fields and schools, CREATE-AQI’s system will integrate existing meteorological, dust, wildfire smoke, and air-quality forecasting models to automatically generate high spatial resolution air quality forecasts.

This will give decision makers, such as preK-12 administrators and the Utah High School Activities Association, real time, local data that could prevent children’s exposure to hazardous levels of particle pollution.

The grant money will also go towards understanding the most effective way to craft and deliver actionable, science-based messages about potential air quality hazards.