Hayward Field sensors to advance UO wildfire smoke initiative

New sensors installed recently at Hayward Field in advance of an international track and field event will help both athletes and UO researchers cut through some of the haze around air quality and wildfire smoke.

The sensors are part of a broader initiative at the UO to use the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 as a catalyzing event to advance research and practice around wildfire smoke. The work will enable better detection, prediction, planning and response to smoke and support efforts by track and field event organizers provide a safer experience for fans and athletes.

The air quality initiative will further the capacity for longer-term response planning and resilience by improving researchers’ understanding of how individuals respond to local smoke events, leveraging ongoing related work at the UO, and forming new partnerships.  

“We used to think of wildfire as a rural problem, but increasingly urban areas are having to face wildfire and smoke,” said Cass Moseley, UO’s interim vice president for research and innovation and a policy expert who has studied wildfire management in the West. “Until recently we haven’t focused on the potential of wildfire smoke affecting large events like football games, concerts or track and field events, but the issue has grown too big to ignore.”

Air quality sensor at Hayward Field Heidi Huber Stearns, a research assistant professor and the director of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment, said researchers and agency officials involved in wildfire research, incident management, public health and other overlapping areas are increasing efforts toward sharing data, exchanging best practices and creating new partnerships. The result will be better, more localized information about smoke and improved preparedness when the next wildfire or smoke event occurs.

“Part of what we're doing is better connecting and expanding the UO’s network and understanding of public health and wildfire smoke, our response to that and how we use air quality data,” Huber-Stearns said.

The recently installed Hayward Field sensors are part of two complementary efforts. World Athletics has a rapidly deployable wireless device known as a Kunak system that allows monitoring of different air pollutants. Designed specifically to monitor the impact of air quality during sports events and to help evaluate improvement actions, it helps organizers design appropriate policies to protect the health of athletes.

The second monitor, a wildfire smoke sensor installed by the UO, is known as a PurpleAir device. A small, Wi-Fi-enabled monitor that went live Feb. 11, it is part of a larger open-source network that includes sensors installed by the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency.

Both types of sensors are integrated, allowing measurements of different variables and increasing the available data resolution, said Paulo Emilio Adami, medical manager of the World Athletics’ Health and Science Department. Air pollution, Adami said, is an invisible threat that claims the lives of 7 million people around the world each year and  affects the 1.4 billion people who run regularly.

The organization has made air quality one of six focus areas of its sustainability strategy. And it has committed to installing 1,000 sensors at athletic tracks throughout the world to help maintain healthy standards for athletes and fans.

“Installing the device so many months before the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 is fundamental to collecting background air quality levels (including) during other events that will take place in the stadium,” Adami said. “This will allow us to compare the gases and particle levels measured in the months before, to those that the athletes will be exposed to during the World Athletics Championships Oregon22.”

The sensors are close to the Hayward Field track, allowing researchers to capture samples that are representative of the air that athletes, staff and spectators will be breathing during the competition.

"It will allow us to fill the gap between regulatory-grade systems and personal exposure with new actionable data," said Miguel Escribano, business development manager at Kunak Technologies and an external consultant for World Athletics.

UO President Michael Schill said the collaboration between World Athletics and the university will create new capacity for researchers to study wildfire smoke and air quality issues, the benefits of which will extend well beyond the championships.

“We are eager to welcome the world to Hayward Field in 2022 and proud to be the first U.S. host of this extraordinary event,” Schill said. “In addition to being a celebration of diversity, human potential and athletic achievement, World Athletics Championships Oregon22 promises to be a catalyst for impactful research benefitting human health and improving the lives of Oregonians.”

In partnership with USA Track & Field, the championships will bring 2,000 athletes from more than 200 countries to compete in Eugene in July 2022.

The sensor network includes monitors throughout the region and across the country. Benjamin Clark, an associate professor in the School of Planning, Public Policy and Management, is overseeing the installation of 25 PurpleAir wildfire smoke sensors.

Clark’s research focuses on crowdsourcing and how governments can use data to help in decision-making on issues including air quality. Working together with students trained in geographic information system mapping, he is placing monitors in prime locations throughout Lane County and the UO campus, including Hayward Field.

 “There's already this open infrastructure where we can pull data from the devices that are ours and from devices that are not ours,” Clark said. “We can then start to create a bigger picture of what the air quality looks like on good days and on bad days.”

By Lewis Taylor, University Communications