The air quality forecast rote: Recent changes and future challenges

William F. Ryan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Air quality forecasting is a recent development, with most programs initiated only in the last 20 years. During the last decade, forecast preparation procedure—the forecast rote—has changed dramatically. This paper summarizes the unique challenges posed by air quality forecasting, details the current forecast rote, and analyzes prospects for future improvements. Because air quality forecasts must diagnose and predict several pollutants and their precursors in addition to standard meteorological variables, it is, compared with weather forecasts, a higher-uncertainty forecast. Forecasters seek to contain the uncertainty by “anchoring” the forecast, using an a priori field, and then “adjusting” the forecast using additional information. The air quality a priori, or first guess, field is a blend of past, current, and near-term future observations of the pollutants of interest, on both local and regional scales, and is typically coupled with predicted air parcel trajectories. Until recently, statistical methods, based on long-term training data sets, were used to adjust the first guess. However, reductions in precursor emissions in the United States, beginning in the late 1990s and continuing to the present, eroded the stationarity assumption for the training data sets and degraded forecast skill. Beginning in the mid-2000s, output from modified numerical air quality prediction (NAQP) models, originally developed to test pollution control strategies, became available in near real time for forecast support. The current adjustment process begins with the analyses and postprocessing of individual NAQP models and their ad hoc ensembles, often in concert with new statistical techniques. The final adjustment step uses forecaster expertise to assess the impact of mesoscale features not resolved by the NAQP models. It is expected that advances in model resolution, chemical data assimilation, and the formulation of emissions fields will improve mesoscale predictions by NAQP models and drive future changes in the forecast rote. Implications: Routine air quality forecasts are now issued for nearly all the major U.S. metropolitan areas. Methods of forecast preparation—the forecast rote—have changed significantly in the last decade. Numerical air quality models have matured and are now an indispensable part of the forecasting process. All forecasting methods, particularly statistically based models, must be continually calibrated to account for ongoing local- and regional-scale emission reductions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)576-596
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of the Air and Waste Management Association
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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