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Air Quality In Montana – Pollution, Wildfire Smoke and the AQI

When it comes to finding a healthy place to visit or to raise your family, one of the most important things that you should think about is air quality. Poor air quality can have a significant impact on quality of life, overall health, and for visitors, the quality of your vacation experience.

Globally, air quality has become a focus of environmental groups and public health departments. With a better understanding of the long-term effects caused by breathing poor quality air, it is important to know the air quality of your home or your vacation spot, so you can make good choices about caring for your family or the types of activities you engage in.

While Montana is one of the less populated states in the United States, it still has air quality issues. They may be different from the air quality concerns in large, population centers like Los Angeles or New York, but they still impact the quality of life, and can even put a damper on your vacation plans.

How Air Quality is Measured?

Throughout the United States, air quality is measured in a consistent manner, using guidance from the US Clean Air Act. The USEPA has created an air quality assessment index that uses several factors to determine the air quality in an area.

Air quality is measured using specialized monitoring stations that are installed around Montana and other states, that measure five major air pollutants:

  • Particle Pollution
  • Ground-level ozone
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Nitrogen dioxide

From the concentrations of each pollutant measured, local public health departments can determine the AQI (air quality index) Level of Concern. In Montana, the daily AQIs are measured and calculated by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The AQI is valued between 0 and 550 that indicates the overall air quality based on the five major pollutants above. The higher the AQI value, the worse the air quality, and the greater risk for health issues.

In general, an AQI between 0 and 100 is considered to be low risk, good air quality.

montana landscape

What Impacts Air Quality in Montana?

There are a number of ways that air quality in Montana can be altered. This doesn’t always mean that air quality is impacted in a negative way, but it makes a difference regardless.

  • Wind and Weather: Wind can be helpful at moving pollution away from an area, but it can also stir-up dust and debris that can increase pollution in an area. Precipitation such as rain or snow tends to help with reducing the amount of air pollution in an area.
  • Population: The larger population centers in Montana tend to deal with air pollution issues. More cars, industrial activities, and the use of sand on icy roads increase the pollution in the larger cities in Montana. You can expect communities such as Missoula, Billings, and Bozeman to have lower-quality air than in more rural areas.
  • Drought Conditions: If an area is facing drought conditions, you can expect winds to stir up more dust than if the area is getting typical precipitation. Drought conditions can have negative impacts on air quality.
  • Wildfire: Wildfires and forest fires are a big factor in the air quality in Montana. In recent years, Montana has seen reduced air quality during the summer months due to drought, higher than normal temperatures, and wildfires. Wildfires don’t have to be in Montana to change the air quality. Some of Montana’s worst air quality days have been caused by wildfires in other states.
  • Agricultural Activities: In rural areas, fall brings crop harvest and more particulate pollution in the air. This increased particulate pollution caused by dust from fields and airborne plant material can have a negative impact on air quality.

Seasonal Changes in Air Quality in Montana

In general, air quality in Montana is much better than in other states, thanks to a less dense population, and fewer high population areas. There are some seasonal trends with air quality in Montana that may influence when and where you visit or live in Montana.

Winter seems to have overall better air quality within the state. However, some parts of the state may see temperature inversions during the winter that can push lower quality air, closer to the ground. This is mostly a concern in Montana’s larger cities during the winter.

Spring may have the best air quality of the year in Montana. Thanks to more humidity in the air, spring rains, and breezes that keep air quality high. For individuals that have respiratory concerns, spring is the time to visit Montana.

Lower air quality can be expected in the summer and fall. Higher temperatures, lower humidity, agricultural activities, and wildfires all contribute to increased air pollution during the summer and fall.