On Tuesday, Feb. 21, Professor of Environmental Studies at Keene State College Dr. Nora Traviss reported on how woodsmoke trapped by air inversions pollutes Keene’s air quality about two weeks out of the year.
At a two-part lecture in Rhodes Hall, Traviss said the cause of these problems are a phenomenon called air inversions.
“As you go up in altitude the temperature gets colder, or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work,” Traviss said. “An air inversion is when you go up and at some altitude the temperature actually gets warmer. This acts as a sort of tupperware lid to trap pollution close to the ground.”
Part of this is because geographically Keene is a bowl, so there is a little wind to blow the pollution away. The main pollutant here is woodsmoke from woodstoves, said Traviss. According to Traviss, this phenomenon only happens around 12 nights a year.
Traviss updated the audience on her and her students’ efforts to track the air quality in Keene. These efforts were done both by students driving around Keene testing air quality in different parts of the city, and by a few individuals who live in Keene who had agreed to help monitor air quality in their area. Overall, according to Traviss, Keene falls below the 35 micro per cubic meter over 24 hours standards set by the EPA. However, she argued that this does not take into effect that this standard is an average over 24 hours and Keene’s air pollution, while visible in the evening and at night, is gone in the morning.
Additionally, the problem is not spread evenly around Keene, but is focused more in west Keene, around Keene middle school. Another study by Traviss done in 2015 looked at health impacts at a hospital in Keene. The study found elevated cases of asthma from kids in neighborhoods with more pollution. However, the data was not statistically significant. Traviss said this could be due to the overall small sample size available in Keene. According to Traviss, the health effects on a healthy adult are minimal but it can worsen colds like the flu by putting more stress on the immune system and poses more of a threat to the old and the young.
The end result of Traviss and her students’ work was a map of Keene that updates every ten minutes with air quality conditions around the city. Audience members were also invited to join the Keene Clear Air Facebook page for updates on air conditions in Keene.
The second part of the lecture was presented by GIS specialist at the Southwest Region Planning Commission Henry Underwood. Underwood focused his presentation on how to most effectively burn wood without causing large amounts of smoke. The strategies he outlined included letting wood dry six to twelve months before burning and using more modern eco-efficient wood stoves. According to Underwood, burning wood in the most eco-friendly way is also the most efficient way.
The lecture was attended by about twenty to twenty-five people, with about 70 percent of those being Keene State students.
Some audience members found the lecture engaging and informative. One of these audience members is one of Traviss’ students, Isaiah Bates.
“I think Traviss killed it,” Bates said. “She did a really good job describing what’s going on and her counterpart (Underwood) did a really good job describing proper firewood etiquette.”
Another audience member, Judy Bell, said that while she uses an efficient wood stove, she had learned from the lecture that there are nights when she shouldn’t use the woodstove at all. Bell said her favorite part of the presentation was the rap at the end of the presentation that reiterated the points made during the lecture.
Traviss hopes in the future to be able to predict exactly when an inversion is going to happen and then be able to relay that information back to the community. Those who are interested in learning more about Keene’s air and getting updates can join the Keene Clear Air Facebook page.
Teddy Tauscher can be contacted at