Intense smoke covered the northeastern region of the US for a second consecutive day on Wednesday, creating a yellowish-gray hue and prompting warnings for people to stay indoors, shutting their windows. The smoke originates from multiple wildfires across the provinces of Canada.
The hazardous air quality, with high levels of fine particulate matter, has prompted health warnings and officials advising vulnerable people, including the elderly and those with respiratory conditions to take precautions.
The current wildfires being experienced across Canada have already led to multiple evacuations and raised concerns over the increased risks of wildfires as global temperatures continue to rise.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued a warning Wednesday night reporting that a considerable portion of the air in certain regions, including the mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and sections of the Upper Great Lakes, fell under the “unhealthy or worse” categories due to the hazardous smoke from the Canadian wildfires.
As the smoke is expected to linger for the next few days, U.S. authorities have alerted multiple regions and issued air quality advisories. People are urged to stay indoors and take measures to protect themselves from the smoke, especially those considered vulnerable, such as the elderly and those with respiratory complications.
The central part of New York State has been experiencing particularly severe conditions, with hazardous levels of airborne soot, as reported on Wednesday. The situation has led New York City officials to advise people to stay indoors until it’s safe to go outside. On Tuesday, the smoke began to obscure New Jersey from view across the Hudson River.
The current situation of hazardous smoke covering several U.S. states is the result of an unusual chain of events. The recent wildfires in Canada were fueled by an extended period of hot and dry weather.
According to Eric James, an expert in modeling from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science at the University of Colorado, and also associated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the month of May was unusually hot, and much of Canada experienced record warm temperatures. These conditions created a significant fuel load, making it easier for fires to ignite and spread across multiple provinces in Canada.
Experts predict that prolonged heatwaves caused by a warming planet will lead to more significant and more extended wildfires in the future. Joel Thornton, who is the professor and chair of the department of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, explains that hotter temperatures will make the occurrence of heatwaves much more common, in turn creating optimal conditions for wildfires.
The recent fires that have caused the widespread smoke in the US are estimated to be about 500 to 600 miles away from Rhode Island, and they come after wildfires that ravaged Nova Scotia. According to Eric James of the University of Colorado, this level and scale of fires have not been witnessed in the past decade.
The smoke from wildfires in western Canada has been spreading and drifting into the United States for several weeks. However, the hazardous smoke that has blanketed the east coast recently is believed to have originated from the fires in Quebec. This region, located in eastern Canada, has been experiencing the impact of massive wildfires, causing air quality to deteriorate rapidly and leaving a thick layer of smoke and soot in the air.
It is not uncommon for smoke from large wildfires to travel vast distances due to strong winds present up in the atmosphere. However, there are certain events that align to produce smoke that blankets vast U.S. cities. The recent dry and hot weather conditions in spring created favorable conditions for significant wildfires. Moreover, meteorologists such as Bob Henson from Yale Climate Change Connections suggest that weather patterns played a major role in causing the widespread smoky haze.
The flow of air over the fires in Quebec gets carried out by air circulated counterclockwise around a low-pressure system near Nova Scotia, pulling the smoke along with it. As it moves along the way, it picks up more soot before turning east over New York state and extending to the Eastern seaboard. All these events happening collectively contribute to the spread of hazardous smoke over vast distances.
According to Bob Henson, the distribution of smoke depends on the direction of the wind. He explained that the trajectory of the smoke is determined by the direction of the wind as it transports it.
While the current wind pattern is not unusual, it aligned with other factors, causing the ongoing situation. Joel Thornton added that the timing of this event happening has unfortunately coincided with favorable conditions for extensive wildfires. Therefore, the interaction between these factors and weather patterns created a chain reaction that has resulted in the widespread smoke across the eastern US.
While current weather patterns are expected to change, the potential worst conditions may last only a day or two. On the other hand, Eric James, an expert in modeling of the environment from the University of Colorado, suggests that some smoke may persist for a week or more.
Smoke appears to be a familiar sight, but it comprises a complex mixture of different shapes and sizes. According to Rima Habre, who is an expert in air quality and exposure science at the University of Southern California, it is not just one specific chemical but composed of a mixture that includes gases, carbons, toxic metals, and even ozone as it travels. As the wind carries the smoke further from the source, it also changes in different ways and can interact with other chemicals in the atmosphere, further enhancing its complexity.
The smoke is characterized by small particles, typically referred to as PM 2.5, that can enter the lungs, where oxygen enters the bloodstream. These tiny particles are harmful to the respiratory system, particularly when the level of pollution is high, leading to inflammation in the lungs, according to Rima Habre.
In recent years, the impact of climate change has intensified wildfires, leading to more people being exposed to similar conditions for longer durations. As a result, Habre expressed concern about broader populations being at risk of exposure to smoke for more extended periods. With these changes, it is possible that individuals will start experiencing more chronic respiratory issues due to prolonged exposure to smoky conditions.
The Environmental Protection Agency has issued an advisory report stating that individuals who are healthy will typically recover quickly from smoke exposure, without any lasting health issues. Unfortunately, this statement cannot be applied equally to everyone, with a particular category of individuals being at high risk of developing severe health complications.
Children with developing lungs, older adults, and individuals with lung diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have significantly heightened risks of being impacted by smoke exposure.
The advisory recommends that people stay indoors and keep doors, windows, and fireplaces closed. This advice is particularly crucial for vulnerable individuals. To further ensure the safety of all indoor occupants, using air conditioning on the recirculation setting in conjunction with air filters, can help in filtering out some particles, reducing smoke inhalation, and preventing respiratory complications.