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Chicago plume? Canadian wildfires? Researchers in Wisconsin are studying causes of ground-level ozone

Team seeks understanding of how pollution affects communities on Lake Michigan shoreline

A large vehicle is parked in a field and is part of a project studying air quality
Researchers with a project called Rocket City Quality Evaluation in the Troposphere are involved in a month-long effort to monitor ground-level ozone in southeast Wisconsin and over Lake Michigan. Photo courtesy of Todd McKinney

With the goal of better tracing harmful pollutants, a team of researchers is collecting air samples this month in Kenosha County to measure ground-level ozone.

High in the atmosphere, ozone protects people from solar radiation. But near the ground, ozone can cause respiratory problems.

Todd McKinney, a graduate student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is part of the team studying ozone in Kenosha County. He recently appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” to discuss the project.

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“The biggest goal, at least for the public side, is awareness,” McKinney said. “How can we better prepare?”

Researchers studying air quality fly a drone in a field
Researchers have flocked to Chiwaukee Prairie in Kenosha County to study the effects of ground-level ozone on communities near the Lake Michigan shoreline this month. Photo courtesy of Todd McKinney

On one day in July, McKinney said, the research team measured the nation’s highest levels of exceeding air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Areas of Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shoreline are known to seasonally experience elevated ground-level ozone, according to state authorities.

However, identifying the precise cause of higher ozone concentrations can be tricky, McKinney said. A variety of sources such as wildfires, vehicle emissions, factories and power plants might contribute to ground-level ozone forming with hot, sunny weather.

READ MORE: Wisconsin under another air quality advisory from Canadian wildfire smoke

One source under continuing study is “the Chicago plume,” or air pollution from Illinois that sits over Lake Michigan and blows onshore in Wisconsin. If researchers can pinpoint specific sources in Illinois, that information could help guide regulation or public health warnings.

“Who is the main polluter? You can’t punish a whole city or a whole group of people sitting in their car for work,” McKinney said.

The research team expects to complete its work in Wisconsin on Aug. 19. Funding for the project comes from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Electric Power Research Institute.