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Interview with the founder of Plume Plotter

Incineration poses major threat for environment and human health by releasing numerous harmful pollutants including particulate matter, metals, acid gases and many others. The legislative basis of most countries has significant gaps when it comes to protecting our health from the incinerator-originated pollutants released in the close vicinity (or within) human settlements. It is still challenging to prove that a certain incinerator has negative impacts on one's health due to practical difficulties in tracking trajectories of incinerator's plumes depending on location, time and weather conditions. Today we tell you the story about fascinating tool called Plume Plotter. Plume plotter has been founded by a computer scientist named Ashley. The idea of Plume Plotter came to his mind nearly five years ago, when a large incinerator was approved a few km from where he lives. The incinerator developer had produced plots of the predicted fallout, but few people were aware of them, they were hard to understand, and they turned out to be wrong. Ashley realized that real-time plume modelling was never done, so he created his own system to do just that. Since then, Plume Plotter has also done historical plume animations, 3D plume plots, and even 3D plume animations. A plot below shows a nice example of Newhaven incinerator plume visualized.

We have interviewed Ashley to learn more about Plume Plotter and to spread the word about this fascinating tool.

- How accurate is your method and how critical are the uncertainties of input parameters for the output?

- In a sense, accuracy is not Plume Plotter’s problem because plumes are modeled using the AERMOD software, which is widely used and has been extensively validated. However, the modelling is indeed sensitive to some of the parameters. Weather data, especially wind direction, is an obvious factor that has a big effect on local pollution. Plume Plotter simply tries to use the most correct parameters and data possible. AERMOD is mostly used by modellers who work for polluters. Conscientious modellers can handle the uncertainty by doing some kind of sensitivity analysis and producing conservative predictions of likely emissions, but many don’t bother.

- If several stacks are located in close vicinity to each other, should we expect some kind of mixture of plumes?  Will this mixture make plume modelling efforts more challenging?

- As far as AERMOD is concerned, sources interact only if they are very close. For example, two flues in one stack should be combined into one bigger source: the combined plume is more buoyant than two separate plumes. Otherwise, plumes are treated as independent and modelled separately.

- How many requests do you generally receive? Which group dominates among the requests? Scientists, environmental activists, small business?

- Plume Plotter has modelled more than 50 pollution sources so far: mostly incinerators but also two power stations and a pig farm. The vast majority of requests come from campaigners who are trying to raise awareness of the fallout from a proposed incinerator but have no idea how to model it themselves. Although Plume Plotter’s predictions are usually the same as polluter-commissioned ones, they are more accessible and real-time. I also receive a few requests from researchers: for example, I’m currently working with a physicist who is an expert on particulate pollution and some geography researchers studying how the planning system deals with pollution sources.

Snapshot of Newhaven incinerator's plume by AEROMOD

- Have you ever received requests from India or China where the air pollution problem is the toughest in the world?

No, surprisingly. The technology works almost anywhere in the world, and in any language, but 90% of requests come from the UK and Ireland. I think there is a need for more (and more global) coordination between people interested in these issues.

- Do you have a story when your product has produced a great impact in a community?

Plume Plotter only provides the technology, so it rarely sees impacts directly. However, numerous users say that the plots helped their campaign, and the Environment Agency (the toothless watchdog that regulates polluters in England) has complained about Plume Plotter being used against them!

Not all impacts are about campaigning. For example, Plume Plotter was contacted last year by someone whose son had suffered a fatal asthma attack near the South London incinerator, asking whether its emissions could be to blame. Plume Plotter constructed animated plume plots for that day, using four different sources of weather data, which ruled out that possibility.

-There are many movements devoted for fighting climate change. Should we fight in the same way for clean air?

Yes, because air pollution is clearly a public health problem and it still hasn’t been solved. There seems to be a consensus that the risk of mortality increases by about 6% for every 10 µg/m³  of PM2.5, not to mention other pollutants. Ironically, some of the measures to reduce greenhouse gases have made air pollution even worse. For example, Europe now has a massive proportion of highly polluting diesel vehicles as a result of a misguided and failed policy to reduce CO2 emissions. The recent increase in wood burning is another example.