How wildfire smoke can travel thousands of miles and how to protect yourself
More than 400 wildfires in Canada have triggered air quality alerts across much of the United States in New York, record air pollution bathed the city in an eerie orange haze. Many said they smelled smoke, despite being thousands of miles away from the fires.
Columbia Climate School experts have been widely featured in the news, using their expertise in weather, air pollution, health and disaster response to help put this unusual event into context. Below, we share some of their insights and tips.
How dangerous is it?
“These levels are at least 10 times higher than what health guidelines state as healthy levels of particulate exposure,” Dan Westerveltwho studies air pollution at the Climate School Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatorysaid CNN. “So we’re really seeing unprecedented amounts of pollution in the New York area and the mid-Atlantic in general.”
“How worried you should be has a lot to do with your own situation,” Jeff SchlegelmilchDirector of the Climate School National Disaster Preparedness Centersaid NPR. He went on to say that poor air quality is bad for everyone, but is especially dangerous for certain groups, including people with lung and heart conditions, the elderly and pregnant women.
Roisin Commane, a Lamont scientist who monitors air quality in New York City and beyond, warned that air quality readings can be unreliable at very high pollutant concentrations. “I’m not sure there are many things that can be measured well when the numbers are so high,” she said. gothamist. “But once it’s above a certain amount, it’s toxic to people. So whether it’s 350 or 355 doesn’t really matter if you have to breathe it.
How can I protect myself and my loved ones?
Climate School experts highlighted the general advice to stay indoors with windows and doors closed whenever possible and to avoid strenuous activities.
“If you have a red air quality alert, now’s probably not the time to get out and do that jog or run,” Schlegelmilch told NPR, “because you’re breathing more air and you are breathing more air more deeply.
Turn on an air purifier if you can, Westervelt advised. And if you need to go out, a good mask can be very useful, Steve Chillrudwho studies air pollution at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said local news media.
“The advantages are that a well-fitting K95 or N95 mask can remove the majority of particles, which cause haze,” he said. “Fit is most important, so even wearing a surgical mask that fits you well can help, but a K95 or N95 mask may work better.”
How does the smoke travel here?
In a fascinating interview with brakedDan Westervelt details how the heat from wildfires helps propel smoke particles high into the atmosphere, where they can then hang around for weeks, hitching a ride on prevailing winds.
Talk with the New York TimesWestervelt added that a low pressure system in upper New England creates the perfect conditions for wind to blow smoke down the East Coast.
How long will this last?
As Canada struggles to bring its record number of fires under control, smoke will continue to seep into the atmosphere. Where this smoke goes mainly depends on the weather, including wind patterns and precipitation, which can help clear the air.
Westervelt told Bloomberg that the smoky haze is likely to stay in the northeast for the rest of the week, before blowing towards the ocean. “I would expect things to start to pick up a little bit as the weekend approaches, but the fires are still burning,” he said. Changing weather conditions may bring “a bit of relief, but it won’t be an overnight change. It might take a while for all the smoke to clear.
Is climate change a factor?
In the CNN interview, Westervelt explained that it can be difficult to say for sure whether climate change caused a specific event such as this wildfire outbreak. However, he added, scientists are no doubt already studying this question.
“What we do know,” Westervelt told CNN, “is that warmer temperatures, drier conditions, worsening droughts, less rainfall — all of these things that are symptoms of climate change — happen, and these things make wildfires worse.”
In an interview with ABC7, Radley Horton, a climatologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, delves into what scientists do and don’t know about how climate change influences wildfires. Watch the interview below:
Will we see more events like this in the future?
“It’s almost unprecedented” for southern Canada and the northeastern United States, Horton said ABC7. But events like this may not remain so exceptional in the future, he said: “We are now seeing signs that perhaps parts of the northeast, forests that we consider less vulnerable , are actually becoming more vulnerable with climate change.”
#Global warming causes symptoms that #Forest fires worse, increases #fires the frequency and amount of surface area burned, which is fuel for more air quality issues, says @columbiaclimate @LamontEarth climatologist @d_westy. Via @CNNThisMorning. 📺: https://t.co/JkK0VBLiWR
— Columbia Climate School (@columbiaclimate) June 8, 2023