Air quality is vital to everyday life and health. Certain gases and particles cause poor air quality (polluted air) in large quantities. This is very unhealthy and unsafe to breathe in.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) wrote in an air quality article that they are in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “issue daily air quality forecasts as part of a national Air Quality Forecasting Capability.” The National Weather Service (NWS) and NOAA implemented this national Air Quality Forecasting Capability that gathers hourly pollutant concentrations in a graphical and numerical form to help prevent the loss of life.
NOAA explains the two major pollutant categories: ozone and particulate matter.
Nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, such as motor vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents,that produce ground-level ozone when there is heat and sunlight. If ozone gases are inhaled, it can create health problems such as lung irritation and inflammation, asthma attacks, wheezing, coughing, and increased susceptibility of respiratory illnesses.
Particulate matter are airborne particles that includes dust, dirt, soot, and smoke. Some particles are directly emitted into the atmosphere and some are formed when gases from burning fuels react with water vapor and sunlight.
What impact does weather have on air quality? NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information explains how scientists found a correlation with air quality and heat waves, droughts, and snow storms.
An increase in ozone can be caused by heat waves, due to the air being stagnant and trapping emitted pollutants. Heat waves can also create a drought. This can create dry vegetation which is fuel for wildfires thus creating smoke. Also, when there are large snow storms that cause power outages, air quality can be indirectly affected due to people using wood and coal burning stoves, fireplaces, and gas or diesel generators to stay warm.
Reducing the amount of the burning of fossil fuels and trying to maintain/prevent wildfires can help keep air quality clean thus making air safer for all humans and animals.
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©2018 Weather Forecaster Brittany Connelly
Since the year 2000, the largest wildfire in almost every American western state has occurred. As we have seen on the news recently, wildfires possess a capability to completely obliterate anything in its path. Along with infrastructure and economic damage as threats, these wildfires put plumes of fine particulates in the air which causes health damage. These particulates extend far past where the initial spark occurred. Thanks to the atmosphere, the particulates can travel hundreds—If not—thousands of miles away from the fire and have an effect on the air elsewhere.
An analysis of PM2.5, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, showed that through worsening wildfires, air quality in turn decreases due to the increase in PM2.5. The EPA has established a federal 24-hour PM2.5 standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter which is the standard for healthy human consumption. In the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, the number of days for which PM2.5 exceeded the EPA standard declined during 2000 through 2016. This decline in the 16-year average can be attributed to efforts to decrease industrial emissions. However, the number of days of exceedances each year during the California wildfire season (June through September) has been increasing. With stronger and more frequent wildfires, this number will increase due to the abundance of PM2.5. Also, longer wildfire seasons are currently being observed, so with this, even more PM2.5 will likely be present in the atmosphere.
Speaking of longer wildfire seasons, in the Pacific Northwest along with other western states, seasons are now on average 105 days longer than what they were in the 1970s. With these longer seasons, stronger fires occur as well. For instance, Idaho has experienced more than 10 times as many large fires (more than 1000 acres) in a typical year since the 70s. Oregon and Washington are 7 times as many and 5 times as many, respectively.
The American West in recent years has experienced more frequent and stronger wildfires as a result of a drying climate. Efforts to clean the air and to remain below the PM2.5 35 micrograms per cubic meter standard set by the EPA, will be facing a harder challenge in coming years. As said above, air pollution progress is quantifiable and can be observed, but so can the increase in PM2.5.
To read Climate Central’s full analysis go, here.
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©2018 Weather Forecaster Alec Kownacki
DISCUSSION: As the state of California continues to contend with some of the worst wildfire conditions in recorded history, there are several other problems which are quickly emerging from wildfires such as (but certainly not limited to), the Camp Fire, the Woolsey Fire, the Hill Fire, and more. One such problem happens to be a substantial threat to general health and respiratory health issues for people of many different age ranges. For example, those with respiratory issues of any kind are far more vulnerable to the impacts from persistent wildfire smoke as well as people who are particularly young or old. Thus, there is much more to these wildfire threats than immediately meets the eye. Having said that, attached above is a brief video briefing which goes into some of these corresponding health threats in a greater amount of detail. Of course, there is still much more to learn and discuss beyond the scope of this article, so be sure to stay tuned for further updates as the state of California begins to work on getting closer to the road to recovery over time.
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© 2018 Meteorologist Jordan Rabinowitz