Residents of New York City and other east coast metropolitan areas have struggled with some of the poorest air quality in these areas for over a decade. But it’s not from the traffic – it’s from a forest fire burning thousands of miles away. Oregon’s Bootleg Fire has already burned more than 340,000 acres of forests and prairies, and its smoke is spreading across the country.
This year’s fire season, which started early in part due to record heat waves and extensive drought, is expected to be brutal – threatening farmlands, forests and grasslands across the western United States. United and its effects go far beyond these states.
The heat from these larger fires sends smoke, carbon black, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons higher into the atmosphere, where they can form other harmful pollutants, such as ozone. Often, larger fires have enough heat and upwelling momentum to send their plumes into the free troposphere – above the layer of air at ground level – where there are fewer elimination pathways and these pollutants can be carried by stronger winds aloft. This is why they can travel such long distances.
Climate change is making extreme weather conditions even more extreme
Forest fires like the Bootleg Fire are one of a series of extreme weather events influenced by climate change.
This year’s heat waves have made an already bad situation worse. Because warmer air can hold more moisture, higher-than-normal temperatures draw moisture from the soil and foliage. Water vapor itself is a powerful greenhouse gas, so more of it evaporating into the air further increases the air temperature, resulting in even more humidity in the air. It is a cycle of positive feedback – “positive” because it builds on itself, not because it’s good for the environment.
Typically, the atmosphere would heat up and then cool, releasing a buildup of moisture in the form of rain in predictable summer patterns. Instead, because the atmosphere retains more heat, it retains more moisture, which increases the chances of torrential rains then inundating communities, creating massive flooding such as those seen this summer in Germany and Germany. China. Our warmer oceans also contribute to larger rainfall events in the same way, by increasing humidity in the atmosphere.
How to protect yourself when the air quality is poor
As hot and dry surface conditions persist in the western states, residents of other parts of the country are also suffering. Since smoke from forest fires can cause significant damage to health, people with a history of heart disease, asthma, and other ailments should carefully plan their outings.
New tools can help. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released a national forecast map showing both vertically and near-surface integrated smoke, so users can better predict when and where smoke will be at its worst in their area.
And the Interagency Forest Fire Air Quality Response Program displays real-time air quality data from low-cost regulatory monitors and sensors deployed by individuals. It provides up-to-date readings from air monitors across the country, along with future trends and suggestions for those most susceptible to air pollution.
As an outdoor enthusiast, I find new tools like these very useful, often planning my own outdoor activities using the information they provide. As an air quality scientist, I’m excited to see these improvements in our ability to track and trace air pollution, and I’m working on related online tools to help people understand their relationship. with air pollution. As an environmentalist, I wish these tools weren’t necessary, and I’m grateful to be part of an organization focused on reducing human influence on the climate.
It’s not too late to slow the pace of climate change – if we take bold action now.
Be careful: The best way to protect your health during periods of heavy forest fire smoke is to stay indoors and keep the indoor air as clean as possible by using air conditioning (in recirculation mode) or an air purifier. high efficiency particulate air (HEPA).
If you must spend time outdoors, an N-95 or P-100 type respirator can help reduce your exposure to particulates. Additional respirator mask guidelines are available from the US EPA.