by Melissa Hart, Angela Maharaj, Giovanni Di Virgilio

Schools Weather and Air Quality (SWAQ) is a citizen science project funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science as part of its Inspiring Australia – Citizen Engagement Program. SWAQ will place meteorology and air quality sensors in Sydney schools to collect data for urban climate, meteorology and air quality research. This project is the first of its kind in Australia and SWAQ has partnered with instrument vendor Vaisala to create a base monitoring network covering 20 primary schools across the Sydney metropolitan region.

Urbanisation can modify the climate in cities resulting in the urban heat island (UHI) effect. This results in city residents bearing the brunt of both global (e.g., climate change) and regional (e.g., the UHI) heat impacts (Krayenhoff et al. 2018; Thorpe and Hart 2013). Both temperature and air quality can also vary greatly within cities due to spatial variability in land-use, surface and geographical characteristics, pollutant emissions and transport infrastructure (Di Virgilio et al. 2018; Hart and Sailor 2009).

Currently there are insufficient meteorological and air quality observation sites to adequately monitor the effects of increased urbanisation on local-scale weather and air quality in most Australian cities. The SWAQ project provides a pilot for how citizen science could potentially enhance monitoring networks, increase STEM engagement and give the public more agency in their daily decision making through access to localised, high temporal-resolution weather and air quality data.

Sydney is an ideal test case because it is Australia’s largest city, and is undergoing rapid development, but it has not been the focus of much urban climate or air quality research.

The citizen science

The citizen science component of SWAQ will involve school students engaging in the siting and installation of instruments and analysing the data in curriculum-aligned classroom activities. School teachers and students will be able to monitor conditions at their school in real time and relate how changes in pollution concentrations are driven by meteorological conditions, or how the onset of events such as bushfires, heatwaves, or thunderstorms can affect air quality.

Participating primary schools will also benefit from engaging outreach activities to gather additional data (e.g, land use classification, estimating sky view factors). Students will learn valuable STEM skills through directly being involved in the analysis of meteorological and air quality data collected in their school grounds.

For High school students, the project will demonstrate how the collected data can be used for student research projects such as the New South Wales (NSW) Science “depth studies” in Years 11 and 12.

Data will be available freely online via a dedicated website for school and public use, complete with real-time visualisations to illustrate the environmental conditions in a local area.

As part of its consultation process, SWAQ recently conducted concept testing for the website visualisations at UNSW Sydney with over 30 High school science students selected from a range of schools around Sydney, Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and regional NSW. 

The science

This project has three key research foci around urbanisation:

  • environmental change,
  • energy use and
  • health.

Sydney’s population is predicted to grow by 30% within twenty years, most of which is slated for the semi-rural fringes (Greater Sydney Commission 2018). The resulting urbanisation will adversely impact temperature and air quality in these areas of rapid population growth.

Urban heat island magnitude is calculated as the concurrent temperature difference between an urban and a rural site. At this point, it is difficult to calculate this magnitude for Sydney due to a lack of temperature observations in the rural surrounds. The geographical location and coastal basin topography of Sydney also complicates factors because a coastal rural site will differ significantly from an inland rural site, due to the moderating influence of the ocean and the sea breeze on coastal suburbs.

SWAQ sites enhance existing air quality and meteorology networks by targeting regions lacking monitoring instruments e.g. urban growth areas and the rural fringe. With a focus on observing urban weather and air quality, SWAQ sensors are sited differently to standard synoptic weather stations. In our case, we are interested in the impacts of the urban environment on weather and air quality, so sensors will be installed in street canyons, school playgrounds and courtyards following WMO guidance for observations at urban sites (Oke 2006).

The SWAQ network will allow, for the first time, detailed spatial analyses of the impacts of urbanisation on Sydney’s weather, climate and air quality. With these observations the magnitude of the urban heat island, and how it differs across the city, can be calculated, and the spatial variability of health and energy impacts of heat and air quality can be analysed. For example, data collected can be used in research related to weather-sensitivity of energy consumption and provide insights into how weather (e.g. heatwaves) may interact with urban air quality to impact human health.

In addition to the bespoke school data and web visualisations targeted at a general audience, SWAQ will also provide high temporal resolution data for urban climate, energy and health researchers.

The monitoring network

The base monitoring network locations were chosen by using weighted overlay spatial analyses to identify schools in regions of projected urban and population growth, as well as identified gaps in the OEH monitoring network. SWAQ is currently negotiating with the selected schools to finalise this network.  

SWAQ is partnering with the NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN), which will place their low-cost air quality sensors currently in development alongside our Vaisala sensors. Further sensor evaluation will be undertaken by co-locating one of our sensors at the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Chullora super site.

The first sensors will be installed in early 2019 and data will be available from the project website: www.swaq.org.au

The collaborations

One of the most encouraging aspects of embarking on a citizen science project has been the enthusiasm and collaborative attitude of a vast range of interested parties. Collaborations thus far include diverse groups such as the scientific research community, schools, the public and industry linkages.

After a comprehensive and exhaustive review of environmental monitoring companies, SWAQ has partnered with Vaisala for the development of the monitoring network. Vaisala’s Head of Air Quality, John Liljelund, travelled from Finland for a face-to-face meeting with the SWAQ team to finalise the partnership and issued the following statement:

“We are proud and excited to participate in this educational project that we believe will be a great example for any school anywhere in the world on how to develop their science education partnering with a company with deep roots in innovation and research.”

The NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN) are collaborating on sensor evaluation and CSIRO’s SMOG will be used in the outreach component.

SWAQ has also been fortunate to have design consultancy company, Tobias and data visualisation specialists, Small Multiples, join the team to develop effective data visualisations for our intended audience (school students and the public). Tobias was instrumental in the planning and running of the design workshops with high school students, which will help inform the design and functionality of the full website.

Conclusion

Similar networks have been implemented in other countries (e.g., Birmingham UK, Victoria BC Canada), however, a point of difference for SWAQ is the provision of a large network of higher quality research-grade sensors in order to optimise the use of data for high quality discovery and applied research. We hope that SWAQ Sydney provides a successful pilot scheme and that we are able to expand the network to other major capital and regional cities around Australia.

References

  • Di Virgilio, Hart MA, Jiang N (2018):  Meteorological controls on atmospheric particulate pollution during hazard reduction burns. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. 18, 6585-6599. doi:10.5194/acp-18-6585-2018
  • Greater Sydney Commission (2018): Greater Sydney Region Plan: A metropolis of three cities. State of New South Wales. https://gsc-public-1.s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/greater-sydney-region-plan-0618.pdf
  • Hart M. and Sailor DJ (2009): Quantifying the influence of land-use and surface characteristics on spatial variability in the urban heat island. Theoretical and Applied Climatology. 95: 397-406.
  • Krayenhoff ES, Moustaoui M, Broadbent AM, Gupta V, Georgescu M (2018): Diurnal interaction between urban expansion, climate change and adaptation in US cities. Nature Climate Change 8, 1097 – 1103.
  • Oke T (2006): Initial guidance to obtain representative meteorological observations at urban sites. Instruments and Observing methods report no. 81. World Meteorological Organization.