Regions breathe easy thanks to rural air quality network upgrade

The NSW Rural Air Quality Monitoring Network is the breathalyser for the State's air - the frontline warning system for the presence of dust and dangerous fine particles.

DPIE Assist Scientist Sean Watt checks intstrumentation at Tibooburra

Every minute, 39 stations located across New South Wales take a sample and analyse it automatically. The result? A constant stream of real-time data on the health of our air that is accessible to communities and scientists.

Each monitor is maintained by local volunteers. From Lismore in the far north-east of New South Wales to Tibooburra in the north-west, Lake Victoria in the south-west and Merimbula on the coast near the Victorian border and right across the rest of the State, it is one of Australia's longest running citizen science projects.

Stephan Heidenreich, a senior scientist with the Climate and Atmospheric Science team within the Department, co-ordinates the program on behalf of the State.

The finer details

He says the monitoring network began life in 2004. In the beginning though, it was entirely about collecting natural resource management information. As a result of the recent $1.5 million upgrade, the monitors now also collect information about the fine particles that are more commonly found in wood smoke.

Heidenreich says the program would not be possible if it were not for the network's volunteers. The network's volunteer community is diverse, with monitors maintained by a diverse range of citizens; publicans, landholders, other agency and local government staff.

"Just to drive around the network once would mean doing about 20,000 kilometres," Heidenreich says, "so, that is why our volunteers who are based in the communities where each of the monitoring stations are located are so crucial. Rain, hail or shine they check the equipment once a month."

Each solar-powered station is worth about $30,000, consisting of a small case on top of a tripod. The data is mostly streamed by the mobile network; however, a few of the more remote locations use satellite data.

Dust busting trends

The network has provided invaluable information about dust storms for nearly 20 years. The upgrade to include the monitoring of the fine particles, proved its worth during the devastating bushfires of the summer of 2019–20.

"On a number of days, the smoke was extremely thick during the bushfires," Heidenreich says. "The concentrations of fine particles were greater than anything that I have ever seen – up to 10,000 micrograms per cubic meter."

"Smoke and dust are most easily relatable by visibility – when visibility is about 10 kilometres it means there's around 25 micrograms of particles per cubic metre, 1 to 5 kilometres is 50 micrograms, from 200 metres to a kilometre is 240 and under 200 metres visibility is 1200 micrograms. Dust storms can exceed 10,000 and you cannot see the end of a car bonnet at those concentration values. There was great video evidence from Mildura where the streetlights came on at midday during one of the dust storms."

Data for decisions

Having such data means regional residents can make informed health decisions about staying indoors when air quality is poor or, in extreme conditions, deciding to wear masks or respirators that prevent inhalation of fine particles.

Find out the latest air quality information.