New air quality monitoring station provides clear data in Arctic

Melinda Bolton

A new Air Quality and Weather Monitoring (AQM) Station funded and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has revealed pristine air quality in the remote Arctic Native Village of Kaktovik and will prove valuable to scientists for years to come.

In 2021, logistics, outreach and funding fell into place for the BLM to plan coordinate ship and install the Kaktovik AQM Station. The state-of-the-art station could have a lifespan of up to 25 years. It will support long-term research in the Arctic and may be used later to test the accuracy of new developments in AQM technology.

A shipping container with equipment sticking out of it. It has a trapezoid shaped sign that says "Bureau of Land Management Kaktovik Air Quality Monitoring Site."
The Kaktovik Air Quality Monitoring (AQM) Station, just southeast of the Native Village of Kaktovik pictured in the winter of 2021-2022 after an official trapezoid-shaped Bureau of Land Management sign was installed. Installed fall 2021, the Kaktovik AQM is one of only two air quality and weather monitoring stations in the Arctic. Early data reads show the only community within the federally managed Arctic National Wildlife Reserve has pristine air quality. Data from this station is available for public inspection through the State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation website, along with most of the state’s other AQM station data. Photo courtesy of Leroy Stigen.

BLM Alaska seized the opportunity to do something new in this area of the Arctic, get baseline data on air quality before any potential development ever happens.  It’s also a unique project for the BLM to undertake – not just because of the challenges of getting a shipping container delivered to the only community within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). As BLM Alaska’s Air Quality Expert, V.J. Maisonet-Montanez explains, usually the State of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) manages air quality monitoring sites in the Last Frontier – and that’s only if an area has demonstrated or has voiced concern about issues with their air quality. For example, winter air quality in Fairbanks is usually impacted by wood burning stoves. The Arctic is home to just one other AQM site.

A man in an orange parka stands on top of a shipping container that houses air quality monitoring equipment. The Alaska Native Village of Kaktovik is visible in the background.
BLM Alaska’s Air Quality Expert, V.J. Maisonet-Montanez stands atop the Kaktovik Air Quality Monitoring and Weather Station, fall 2021. The station was delivered and installed just outside of the remote community, which is landlocked by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 directed the Secretary of the Interior, through the BLM, to establish and administer an oil and gas leasing program in the 1002 area of ANWR, which surrounds Kaktovik. BLM Alaska seized the opportunity to get baseline data on air quality before any potential development ever happens. That wasn’t a possibility in other areas where the federal government manages onshore mineral extraction. BLM photo by Craig Perham.

“At Nuiqsut, the air quality conditions are shared with the BLM and DEC annually,” Maisonet-Montanez describes the partnership in place with a current BLM permit holder. “In the last couple of years there’s only been one notable day of poor air quality which was likely due to high winds blowing dust around.”

Maisonet-Montanez has years of experience monitoring air quality for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and before that, he did this work for the State of Georgia. Installing a station in one of America’s most remote communities meant overcoming unpredictable factors including a narrow Arctic Sea shipping window and safely accessing a rural village during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was kind of a surprise to see it all come together,” said Maisonet-Montanez. “Until I got to Kaktovik in October, this was all a paperwork exercise.”

Scientists dressed in winter gear inspect the air quality monitoring equipment outside of the Kaktovik Air Quality Monitoring Station.
Scientists and contractors during initial inspections of the Bureau of Land Management’s Kaktovik Air Quality Monitoring (AQM) and Weather station. The AQM was installed and started getting data reads in late 2021. The BLM’s Air Quality Expert overcame logistic challenges and mitigated health and safety risks among contractors and the community to get the station on site and functioning. Initial data reads indicate the community has pristine air quality. Data is available through the State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. BLM photo by Virgilio Maisonet-Montanez.

Coordinating closely between contractors, other federal and state agencies, and leaders in Kaktovik paid off. The shipping container, which houses most of the monitoring equipment, made it to the Arctic before the coasts were blocked by sea ice. Under strict public health protocols, Maisonet-Montanez and a few colleagues were permitted to visit the community of less than 300 people. The staff got the shipping container moved to its new semi-permanent home, and all the equipment set up and audited by DEC. The familiar buzzes and sounds of the station take Maisonet-Montanez back to his early days as a scientist and are groundbreaking for this region.


“We didn’t know what to expect. Whether there was a pollution issue or black carbon. Now that it has been running for the last couple months, we see the air is pristine. It is reassuring to the community that their air quality is great.” Maisonet-Montanez remembers the anticipation of getting a data read and highlights early data trends. “The only thing we know of that we’ve picked up on is trash burning days. If the wind blows just right, we can pick that up. It’s a blip we wouldn’t normally see.”
 

Though the station is funded by the BLM, the data is available on the DEC website where the rest of Alaska’s air quality reports are hosted. Data made available by the BLM adds more information on air quality and weather trends for the public and scientists alike. 

A screen grab of an interactive map, on the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation website, that shows where all the publicly-funded air quality monitoring stations are located in Alaska.
A screen shot of the state of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) website. The green and yellow flags indicate the locations of Air Quality and Weather Monitoring (AQM) sites across the state, and the colors indicate actual air quality. While the federal Bureau of Land Management funds the newest site, the Kaktovik AQM, the data is hosted publicly through DEC. Normally an AQM site is only established if a community has demonstrated or has voiced concern about issues with their air quality. BLM seized the opportunity to monitor the Kaktovik area’s air quality before any potential oil and gas development occurs as directed by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Early data reveals pristine air quality in Kaktovik, the only blip in this quality was due to community trash burning. BLM photo.