Julie Jacobson / AP
Smoke rising from the wildfires in the west reaches all the way across the U.S. bringing bright red sunsets and moonlight to the east. But it also contributes to poor air quality and harmful health effects thousands of kilometers from the flames.
Major fires have been burning in the western United States and Canada for weeks. Currently the largest in the US is the Bootleg Fire in Oregon, which has now burned more than 600 square miles of land and grown large enough to create its own weather.
For days, the eastern states have been trapped in a smoky haze from fires across the country. Smoke has settled over major cities nearly 3,000 miles from the fires, including Philadelphia and New York, and even in the eastern parts of Canada.
It is the second year in a row that Rauch has traveled this far east. The sight has become normal during the forest fire season as the fires have become more intense, long-lasting and dangerous due to climate change.
Julie Malingowski, an emergency meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told MediaFrolic that smoke that was forced high into the atmosphere at the site of the fires is now being lowered to the eastern states.
“We see quite a lot of smoke near the surface in parts of the eastern US,” she said.
“As smoke moves further away from the active fire, the smoke usually tends to diffuse into higher parts of the atmosphere so it isn’t as thick on the surface,” Malingowski said. But she said that this time a high pressure area is pushing the smoke to the surface.
Air quality warnings spread in the east
The result was a spate of air quality warnings in the eastern states, including Connecticut and Maryland. The warning labels range from orange to red – orange means sensitive groups are affected and red means everyone living in the area is at risk.
Long-distance particulate matter is responsible. Microscopic particles called PM2.5 were injected high into the atmosphere in the smoke and have traveled with the wind to distant cities.
At 2.5 micrometers, the particles are small enough to penetrate the human lungs. They worsen respiratory diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and can disrupt oxygen exchange, says Sheryl Magzamen, assistant professor of epidemiology at Colorado State University.
PM2.5 can be especially dangerous if poor air quality warnings are not associated with smoke from distant fires, Magzamen told MediaFrolic.
“When that smoke is linked to a local fire, our research has actually shown that, on average, there are fewer hospital admissions and emergency rooms because people protect themselves from smoke and fire,” she said. “However, if you are far from them … there is no such kind of warning system because the fire will keep you in danger.”
Julie Jacobson / AP
Malingowski says the smoke will likely stay as long as the fires rage and the weather stays dry.
“As long as active fires are burning and the pressure is high in the central part of the United States, many locations will experience at least some reduction in visibility in their vicinity east of the Rockies,” she said.
“Once fire activity subsides and precipitation comes back into the picture for locations that have this reduced visibility due to smoke, it will help mitigate the effects of smoke,” she added.
Josie Fischels is an intern at the MediaFrolic news desk.