What's The Air Forecast?
Activity 9 (Elaborate): Making an Air Quality Prediction
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In this activity, students learn how meteorologists make air quality predictions based on air pollution and weather modeling. Then they use what they have learned to make their own an air quality forecast.
Activity Objectives & Materials
DCI: ESS3.C – Human Impacts on Earth Systems
DCI: ESS2.D – Weather & Climate
SEP: Developing & Using Models; Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information
What kinds of information do you think a meteorologist would need in order to make a weather forecast?
Students will likely think of what they have learned in the past few activities, but if they are stuck, use prompts to get them started
Possible answers: temperature, precipitation, wind speed and direction, humidity, etc.
1. Frame the Activity
Tell students that making a weather prediction depends on knowing what the current weather is like and using that information to make an informed guess as to what will happen next, just like you might make a guess about what will happen next in a movie or a book based on what you’ve already read. Meteorologists put the weather information into a computer program that models what might happen next. They do the same thing for air quality. Today we are going to be meteorologists and make an AQI forecast for ozone so we can tell people whether to plan for a good or bad air day, just the way professional meteorologists do.
2. Introduction to Air Quality Prediction
Hand out the AQI Prediction Guide. Tell students that when a scientist wants to make an air quality prediction, they follow a series of steps. We’re going to use steps just like the scientists do to make our own forecast together.
Teacher Tip: This activity is complex, and students will likely be more successful if they work with a partner, either the whole time, or by checking it at times along the way.
Preview the parts below with students. Ask students why each part is necessary for their forecast:
Part 1: Start with the National Weather Service’s (NWS) air quality computer model prediction – a computer model is needed as a starting point based on the huge amount of air quality data
Part 2: Learn about what the weather will be using the National Weather Service’s weather forecast – local weather will affect the air quality
Part 3: Adjust the Weather Service’s air quality model based on the upcoming weather – making adjustments based on weather will make the AQI prediction closer to reality
Part 4 (optional): Look for any pollution which may be blowing into the area – a lot of pollution blowing in can affect the AQI
Teacher Tip: This activity will be more engaging if students have computers to use. If computers are not available, the activity can be done together as a class using a projector.
Teacher Tip: An important thing to keep in mind during this activity is that the ultimate accuracy of students’ AQI predictions is less important than the thought process they go through to make the prediction. With this said, seeing which student(s) can get closest to the actual AQI for the day they are forecasting could be a great motivator for them to try their hardest.
3. Part 1: The NWS Air Quality Computer Model
Hand out student computers (if available) and start by going to the National Weather Service’s computer model of what the air quality will be: airquality.weather.gov. This model takes some variables into account, but it needs to be adjusted for local weather conditions.
Once you get to the website, click on the area of the area of the map where the school is. Continue clicking until you are zoomed into a state-level view that looks like this:
Explicit Language: Students are using a lot of computer models in this activity. Be sure to consistently use the word “model” and “modeling” to drive this point home.
Ask students what kind of information they see in the model. Key observations:
The map on the right is color-coded for AQI based on a single pollutant (it usually starts with ozone). It also has AQI numbers.
The date for this information is at the bottom. It will likely be some time in the future since this is a forecast
The left side has a list of different pollutants (ex. ozone, smoke, and dust)
The left side also has times of day (AM & PM) and some buttons for changing the time of day
If you hover over the different gray boxes on the left (make sure “Table MouseOver Effect” is on, you can see the pollution prediction change over time on the map.
Click on the +12 hour button twice. Ask students why you need to do this (to get to this time tomorrow). Then click on the gray bar for “Daily 8Hr Ozone Max”. This will show the maximum ozone prediction (over an 8-hour span) in parts-per-billion that we will use to start our own forecast. Have students use the scale at the top to determine what the ozone levels will be like tomorrow. What is the maximum ozone for the area closest to the school? Have students record this information on their sheets in parts-per-billion. To convert the ozone level to AQI, go to: https://www.airnow.gov/aqi/aqi-calculator-concentration/ and enter the relevant information.
Teacher Tip: There are a lot of interesting features on the NWS air quality page. For example, the “Loops” tab allows you to watch the map change over time. You and students can explore these other features to learn a lot more about how AQI changes over time.
4. Part 2: NWS Weather Forecast
Go to the National Weather Service’s weather forecast page: https://www.weather.gov. At the top left of the page, there is a place to input your location to get the local forecast. Once on that page, find the Detailed Forecast and enter the relevant information on the AQI prediction guide. To find the relative humidity tomorrow (optional), scroll down on the page and click “Hourly Weather Forecast” to bring up a set of line graphs showing the forecast. Find relative humidity and record it for the early afternoon when it is likely to be hottest.
5. Part 3: Adjusting the Forecast Based On The Weather
Have students transfer their AQI from Part 1 into the first box of the table. Then have them use what they’ve learned about how the weather affects AQI to decide if each weather factor will make the AQI go up, stay the same, or go down. Once they’ve finished filling in the table, they can make a final AQI prediction (number and color). Students may have questions about how much the AQI will change. You can provide some guidance and/or have them think back to the Smog City simulation. The AQI may go up or down from the model, but it won’t go from 50 to 100 because of weather adjustments. In reality, meteorologists draw upon years of experience, intuition, and education to make these adjustments, and even they don’t always agree on the changes.
6. Part 4: Adjusting the Forecast For Incoming Pollution (optional)
Sometimes events occurring upwind such as wildfires or power plant emissions can affect the air quality in an area. To investigate how incoming pollution might affect the AQI, have students first determine where the air is coming from. They can do this by going to windfinder.com and zooming in on the area where the school is located. Next, have them go to airnow.gov to look up the current AQI in the area where the wind is coming from. They can do this by putting in the school’s city, state or zip code. The page that comes up will have a map of the area. If you click on this map, it will bring you to a larger map. Switch the map to show the monitors for ozone using the menu on the left side. From here, you can see if there is any ozone coming into their area based on current wind patterns. If the AQI upwind is particularly bad, students may want to adjust their AQIs up.
Differentiation: If you teach some advanced students, have them follow the directions for the incoming pollution adjustment as an extension.
7. Discuss Adjustments In Small Groups
Once students have made their adjustments to the forecast, have them get together in small groups to discuss what changes they made and talk through why they made their decisions. If some students got stuck on certain parts of the modeling, this will give them a chance to get support from their peers. You can also choose to hold this discussion as a whole group and allow students to debate their adjustments, ex. whether one factor is more important than another in affecting the AQI. While students are discussing (either whole group or small group), listen in and push their thinking, especially to have them explain why they made certain adjustments.
If you think it will provide extra motivation, remind students that you will check to see whose AQI prediction is closest to the actual AQI for the date they are predicting. Some students may enjoy this mini-competition aspect of the prediction process. Have them post their predictions, and be sure to check later on to see how students did.
Authentic Learning: This activity mirrors very closely what actual meteorologists do when preparing an AQI forecast. During “ozone season” in the summer months, meteorologists across the region hold regular phone calls to discuss and debate their daily predictions.
Teacher Tip: Both the AirNow and the Clean Air Partners websites have predictions for air quality. Students may want to use these sites to adjust their own predictions, and if so, remind them that you want their predictions, not the EPA’s.
8. Formative Assessment
The next and final activity in this module asks students to create a weather forecast focused on air quality based on what they’ve learned during this module. That may serve as the formative assessment for this activity. Alternatively, you can provide students with a fictional AQI and weather scenario and have them adjust it using the table like the one in their prediction guide:
Research Sources: Add the websites you used today to your research sources chart paper: NWS Air Quality Computer Model and NWS Weather Forecast. If you used them also add Windfinder, and AirNow.