Clouds, Photo: Arnold Janz
At any given moment, most people aren’t overly conscious of the air they breathe. We inhale and exhale without considering all the factors that affect the quality of the air, or who makes sure it remains safe and free of contaminants. Usually, it isn’t until an irritant—like a nearby forest fire or a fuel leak—is introduced to the air that we start to consider what exactly our lungs are consuming.


Air quality can deteriorate as a result of emissions from human or natural sources, and is also affected by a range of other factors, such as weather conditions and topography. Monitoring this deterioration is key to ensuring the health and safety of Alberta’s population, wildlife, and environment.

Alberta monitors air quality to understand its status and detect changes. The condition of the air quality in Alberta is shared with decision-makers, including policy developers, regulatory agencies, and regular Albertans.

Air Quality Health Index (AQHI)

Specific individual air pollutants are monitored to calculate the Air Quality Health Index, or AQHI, for over 25 communities in the province. The AQHI is a public information tool that is reported every hour and available at and also via Apple, Android and BlackBerry smartphone applications.

Air Monitoring Design

Air monitoring design in Alberta can be informed by provincial and federal legislation, policies and objectives. It can also consider air quality information desired by Albertans for a variety of reasons. Some elements that impact air quality monitoring include:

  • The Renewed Clean Air Strategy
  • The Air Quality Health index
  • Regional air quality environmental management frameworks
  • Cumulative impacts of development in the oil sands areaAir quality monitoring is enhanced in the north east region of the province. Increased sampling frequency, parameters and locations have been integrated with previous monitoring efforts, to monitor air quality near industrial sources, in local communities and downwind of oil sands industrial activities.
  • Real-time reporting on air quality impacted by forest fire smoke. Forest fire advisories are available to the public, who can use the information for decisions regarding outdoor activities, such as planning a camping trip.

Many stakeholders are involved in air quality monitoring in Alberta. In addition to working with the Federal Government, Alberta’s environmental science program works with:

Ambient air quality monitoring in Alberta is a collaboratively delivered, comprehensive network of diverse stations and uses of innovative and flexible technology that addresses both long-term and short-term information needs of many users. Consistent, long-term ambient monitoring is the core of the air quality program, which involves monitoring at strategically located, permanent stationsSome of the air pollutants monitored at these stations include sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons..

In addition to the continuous air quality monitoring, there are numerous non-continuous monitoring stations. These stations monitor for a variety of pollutants, many of which are important because they can contribute to smog formation and also are potentially toxic at high concentrationsAcidic deposition monitoring occurs within regions of the province that have higher ecological receptor sensitivity and higher projected emissions of acidifying chemicals. Precipitation (rain and snow) samples are collected on a weekly basis at consistent stations..

Various technologies are used to monitor air quality when innovation or flexibility is required, again supporting both long-term or short-term data and information needs. These technologies include:

  • Passive monitorsThese monitors do not require power and have no moving parts. Therefore, they are especially useful for determining long-term air pollutant trends at remote locations and understanding the spatial variation of pollution levels over a large region. There are over 1000 passive monitoring stations in the province, providing long-term ambient air quality information.
  • A specially equipped vehicle, the Mobile Air Monitoring Laboratory (MAML)
  • Oil sands monitoring tools such as aircraft, ground-based and remote sensing (satellite) techniquesThese technologies help scientists understand what pollutants are being emitted by oil sands operations and how these pollutants are transported, transformed and deposited to the environment.

Alberta’s environmental science program ensures that air quality monitored and reported in the province conforms to stringent quality control and quality assurance standards. Audits of ambient air stations and trailers are regularly conducted to assess their monitoring and calibration systems, contributing to the quality of their performance. Stack monitoring audits are also conducted, testing the reliability of data from approved industrial facilities across the province, supporting emission inventories. Quality controlled air quality data is available at Alberta’s Ambient Air Quality Data Warehouse.