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.

12 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

  4. McLeod says:

    “As the frequency and size of wildfires continues to increase worldwide, new research from Carnegie Mellon University scientists shows how the chemical aging of the particles emitted by these fires can lead to more extensive cloud formation and intense storm development in the atmosphere. The research was published online today in the journal Science Advances.” https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-02/cmu-hwm022421.php
    See also “Atmospheric aging enhances the ice nucleation ability of biomass-burning aerosol” https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/7/9/eabd3440

  5. Cough it up says:

    Smoke forecast for June 16, 2021 https://wildfiretoday.com/2021/06/16/smoke-forecast-for-june-16-2021/
    These maps predict the distribution of smoke at 6 p.m. MDT today, June 16, 2021.
    Vertically integrated smoke depicts all of the smoke in a vertical column, including smoke high in Earth’s atmosphere and can produce red sunrises and sunsets. In some cases where it is only at high altitudes it may not be very noticeable on the ground.
    Near-surface smoke refers to the smoke that will hover within 8 meters (26 feet) of the ground—the kind responsible for burning eyes and aggravated asthma.

  6. Cassandra says:

    Exposure to wildfire smoke during pregnancy increases the risk that a baby will be born too early, a new Stanford University study suggests. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/926096
    The study, published Aug. 14 in Environmental Research, finds there may have been as many as 7,000 extra preterm births in California attributable to wildfire smoke exposure between 2007 and 2012. These births occurred before 37 weeks of pregnancy when incomplete development heightens risk of various neurodevelopmental, gastrointestinal and respiratory complications, and even death.
    Wildfire smoke contains high levels of the smallest and deadliest type of particle pollution, known as PM 2.5. These specks of toxic soot, or particulate matter, are so fine they can embed deep in the lungs and pass into the bloodstream, just like the oxygen molecules we need to survive.
    “Associations between wildfire smoke exposure during pregnancy and risk of preterm birth in California” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S001393512101166X?via%3Dihub

  7. p/s says:

    Smoke from California wildfires increases doctor visits and blocks sun from crops : Study shows N95 masks can reduce hospital visits for smoke inhalation by up to 40 percent https://wildfiretoday.com/2021/10/06/smoke-from-california-wildfires-increases-doctor-visits-and-blocks-sun-from-crops/
    Recent articles on MSN.com pointed out three different wildfire smoke related issues.
    ● Smoke in California’s Central Valley increased doctor visits (Oct. 3 2021) https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/smoke-in-the-valley-increases-doctor-visits-911-calls/ar-AAP3x3Q
    ● Some masks can protect against wildfire smoke (Sept. 30, 2021) https://thehill.com/policy/equilibrium-sustainability/574549-n95-masks-can-reduce-emergency-room-visits-for-wildfire
    ● Wildfire smoke is blocking Central Valley crops from the sun (Oct. 6, 2021) https://www.msn.com/en-us/weather/topstories/wildfire-smoke-is-blocking-central-valley-crops-from-the-sun/ar-AAP6Mho

  8. Bacchus says:

    “Oregon State University researchers and a team of West Coast university collaborators have received a $7.65 million grant to study the impact of smoke exposure on grapes, a project that will provide critical knowledge to grape growers and winery owners severely impacted by widespread wildfire smoke in recent years.” https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/933152
    The grape and wine industry contributes $220 billion to the U.S. economy [link], and wine grapes are the highest value fruit crop in the country [link], according to WineAmerica, a group that represents the wine industry in Washington, D.C.
    Wildfires are a significant threat to these industries because persistent exposure to smoke compromises the quality and value of wine grapes and adversely affects wines. That threat is particularly pronounced on the West Coast of the United States, where California, Oregon and Washington are three of the nation’s top four wine-producing states [link].
    An economic analysis of the 2020 wildfires estimated losses up to $3.7 billion [link], a number that will be felt into 2023 because many wineries have decided to not produce wine from 2020 grapes due to the severity of impacts from wildfires.

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