A video produced by scientists at Environment Canada offers a new look at how industrial pollution spreads through the atmosphere and settles on the ground.
The high-resolution video, shown at a scientific conference earlier this year, is being released to the public today by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Pembina Institute.
It shows how emissions rise from industrial plants, such as oil and gas sites, refineries, coal-burning power plants and the oilsands, and then travel through the atmosphere.
"I think it really outlines the cumulative effects that are present from a large number of emission sources," said Andrew Read, an analyst with the Pembina Institute, an environmental watchdog agency.
"The video is really a good tool to demonstrate how emissions are distributed and dispersed in the province," he said.
Environment Canada collected air-flow patterns over a period of four weeks and then matched with emission data collected at a series of air-monitoring stations operated by the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency. It focused on sulphur dioxide emissions because on the Prairies the only source comes from industrial operations.
The data does not capture other elements that affect air quality, such as vehicle emissions or forest fires.
"What it does show is that the pollutants from industrial activities and other activities can be transported far downwind, so they can be transferred hundreds of kilometres downwind from where they are actually emitted," said the agency's director of air shed sciences, Bob Myrick.
Dr. Joe Vipond of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment says the visual representation of air pollution brings awareness of the issue to a whole new level.
"It kind of hits you in the gut when you see these videos because we knew that there's been this idea that the [sulphur dioxide] doesn't move very much and it doesn't affect big urban areas," he said. "But as you see these plumes wafting across the landscape as the wind shifts direction, it's never coming from the same direction but overall it goes everywhere."
The air quality across much of Alberta came under closer scrutiny a month ago when the Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards report found pollution levels in the Red Deer area exceeded national standards, and other regions were closing in on those standards.
At the time, Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said the time to act is long overdue.
Vipond agrees. He's leading a campaign to shut down coal-fired power plants, one source of the emissions seen in the video model.
"In the populated areas, it's the coal-fired power plants that are really causing the disturbances," he said, noting there are 12 plants west of Edmonton and several more to the south.
"These coal plants have viable alternatives, they're not bringing any money into the government pockets and they're having incredible health impacts on Albertans."
In a statement to CBC News, Environment Canada said the model was created "to provide air quality forecasting delivered to Canadians through the Air Quality Health Index Program," and to "predict changes in air pollutant emissions on air quality."
The index provides continuing monitoring and allows Canadians to see in real time the air quality in their region. A link can be found on the Environment Canada website.