Wildfire smoke ain’t like some family campfire, folks!


Daytime, Juniper Hills, California

The West Coast’s wildfire crisis is no longer just the West Coast’s wildfire crisis: As massive blazes continue to burn across California, Oregon, and Washington, they’re spewing smoke high into the atmosphere. Winds pick the haze up and transport it clear across the country, tainting the skies above the East Coast.

But what are you breathing, exactly, when these forests combust and waft smoke near and far? Charred trees and shrubs, of course, but also the synthetic materials from homes and other structures lost in the blazes. Along with a variety of gases, these give off tiny particles, known as PM 2.5 (particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller), that weasel their way deep into human lungs. All told, the mixture of solids and gases actually transforms chemically as it crosses the country, creating different consequences for the health of humans thousands of miles apart. In other words, what you breathe in, and how hazardous it remains, may depend on how far you live from the Pacific coast…

As the smoke plume travels through the atmosphere, “the heavier particles are going to start to fall out as time moves on,” says Rebecca Buchholz, an atmospheric chemist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “But then those sticky, partially burnt carbon gases are going to start to coagulate and become more particles again. So you’re losing particles out of the smoke, but you’re also gaining particles as the air processes through time.”

Another atmospheric nasty we’re all too familiar with forms as well: ozone, which inflames your airways. “Ozone requires carbon-containing gases, nitrogen-containing gases, and sunlight,” says Buchholz. “And so the more processing time you have, the more ozone is going to get created in that smoke plume.”

There are parts of the West where breathing the air has been evaluated as the equivalent of smoking 400 cigarettes! Today, wasn’t that bad in my neck of the prairie – here in northern New Mexico. But, after a morning try, I had to give up my usual regimen of exercise walking. My breathing, my eyes, just had too much of a bad thing to deal with.

4 thoughts on “Wildfire smoke ain’t like some family campfire, folks!

  1. nicknielsensc says:

    Ozone formation would explain why my wife’s asthma has been so bad in the past few weeks. She’s had to take more breathing treatments in the last month than she has in the last two years.

  2. Whatever goes up... says:

    “Unexpected wildfire emission impacts air quality worldwide : University of Colorado Boulder co-led study completes first global detection of nitrous acid in wildfire plumes” https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-09/uoca-uwe092120.php
    “We found nitrous acid levels in wildfire plumes worldwide are two to four times higher than expected,” said Rainer Volkamer, CIRES Fellow, professor of chemistry at CU Boulder and co-lead author on the Nature Geoscience study. “The chemical can ultimately drive the formation of lung- and crop-damaging ozone pollution downwind of fires.” The Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences [CIRES] is a research institute that is sponsored jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado Boulder. https://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Cooperative_Institute_for_Research_in_Environmental_Sciences
    Nature geoscience (9/21/20): “Global nitrous acid emissions and levels of regional oxidants enhanced by wildfires” https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-020-0637-7
    See also “High-severity wildfires in northern coastal California have been increasing by about 10 percent per decade since 1984, according to a study from the University of California, Davis, that associates climate trends with wildfire.” https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-09/uoc–wot091720.php
    “Intensified burn severity in California’s northern coastal mountains by drier climatic condition” https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aba6af

  3. ...it takes your breath away says:

    “What the Photos of Wildfires and Smoke Don’t Show You” (ProPublica) https://www.propublica.org/article/what-the-photos-of-wildfires-and-smoke-dont-show-you
    “How bad is all that wildfire smoke to our long-term health? ‘Frankly, we don’t really know'” https://news.yahoo.com/california-choked-wildfire-smoke-bad-130055469.html
    “Understanding the long-term consequences is critical, scientists said, because wildfire smoke is a growing health hazard, responsible for an increasing share of the fine-particle pollution across the Western U.S. (see https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.8b05430 ) And with climate change warming and drying out landscapes, helping to fuel bigger, more intense fires, you can expect more smoky days in the future.”
    “How climate change is fueling record-breaking California wildfires, heat and smog” https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-09-13/climate-change-wildfires-california-west-coast

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