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.