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Your Guide to Understanding the East Coast Smokepocalypse

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NEW YORK CITY—Millions of East Coasters awoke to clearer skies today after ash-laden smoke from raging Canadian wildfires turned much of the Northeast this week into a toxic, crimson hellscape.

The smoke, which began to billow into the U.S. from Quebec on Tuesday, engulfed entire skylines in a thick haze of soot, aggravating asthma attacks and prompting officials to declare air quality alerts from Pittsburgh to Baltimore to Provincetown, Massachusetts. By Wednesday afternoon, the haze had swallowed all of New York City, blotting out the sun and tinting the sky an ominous dark orange—like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie.

It was some of the worst air pollution the region had experienced on record, causing major disruptions as schools and restaurants opted to close, professional sports leagues delayed their games and federal officials curbed air travel due to poor visibility. Nearly 600 flights across the country were delayed or canceled as of Thursday afternoon. Even the White House Pride celebration, which was expected to draw thousands of people to the South Lawn on Thursday, was postponed to Saturday.

But while the Smokepocalypse—as it’s been dubbed on the internet—clears in some places, experts say that the situation is far from over. This curated guide will arm you with everything you need to know, including how to protect yourself, your loved ones and even your car the next time you find yourself enveloped by wildfire smoke—because, yes, climate change is making that scenario more likely to occur again.

How, exactly, did all of this smoke get here from Canada?

There are roughly 430 wildfires burning in Canada right now, with more than 140 of them just north of New England in Quebec. Many of those fires are burning incredibly intense right now, and it’s producing a lot of smoke. The smoke that engulfed much of the East Coast this week came specifically from the Quebec hotspots, with help from a cold front that guided it hundreds of miles south into the U.S.

Satellite images like this one offer a good visual on how it played out. Vermont, for example, was spared thanks to the jet stream.

What’s next? Is the Smokepocalypse over?

Not quite. Yes, the air quality greatly improved by Friday morning in some of the hardest hit cities, including New York City and Washington, D.C. But those noxious wildfire fumes could be blown as far south as Florida and as far west as Ohio. As many as 18 states issued air quality alerts across the country this week, and some of that smoke has even traveled as far as Norway.

In general, people living on the East Coast and in the Midwest should be mindful of their air quality through at least the weekend, especially because the haze will likely appear much thinner than what many folks experienced on Wednesday and Thursday. That could mislead people into believing the smoke won’t affect their health. It definitely can.

In fact, air quality remained “moderately unhealthy” across much of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York as of Friday afternoon, according to the federal government’s air quality monitoring website. That’s a huge step down from the “very unhealthy” category—or “code purple”—that covered most of the region earlier this week, but it could still pose a risk to those with asthma or other breathing sensitivities.

It’s also a larger issue than this one event. New Yorkers and others living in the Northeast may be seeing more wildfire smoke throughout the summer—at least until the hundreds of blazes in Canada are finally squelched.

Just how dangerous is wildfire smoke?

Smoke in general is dangerous to inhale. It contains a host of byproducts that are harmful to human health, including nitrogen oxides, ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter. Those toxic materials can irritate your lungs, exacerbate asthma and other respiratory conditions, and over a long enough period, lead to increased risk of lung disease and other serious ailments.

But research has shown that wildfire smoke is especially dangerous for humans. In fact, one study found that wildfire smoke is up to 10 times more harmful to humans than other air pollution sources, such as car exhaust.

That’s largely because of the high concentration of particulate matter in wildfire smoke. Particulate matter, or PM2.5, are microscopic particles of soot that can embed deep within your lung tissue and even make it into your bloodstream, where it has the potential to cause serious, long-term health problems like cardiovascular disease.

Exposure to this type of pollution is very risky for the elderly, pregnant people, young children and those with compromised health. Too much exposure can even increase the chances of getting sick from colds, the flu and Covid 19. You can monitor your exposure risk through this federal website

How can I protect myself, my loved ones and … my car?

The biggest way to protect yourself is to get away from the smoke, if possible. But if you’re stuck living with wildfire smoke, as many on the West Coast can attest to, there are some ways to reduce your exposure and safeguard your health. Dani Anguiano put together a bunch of useful tips for the Guardian, tapping some of the nation’s most qualified wildfire experts: Californians.

Here’s a quick breakdown: 1) Avoid going outside and limit outdoor activity 2) Wear a mask if you must go outside, preferably an N95 or similar quality mask 3) Run an air purifier day and night 4) If you’re using air conditioning, be sure it’s recirculating air from inside.

For those with central air conditioning, be sure it’s equipped with the right filters, such as the MERV 13. Emily Pontecorvo from Heatmap News does a good job of explaining filters—and even how to create your own makeshift air purifier with a floor fan.

Other tips include avoiding exacerbating indoor pollution while you wait out the Smokepocalypse in your home—so no cooking with a gas stove or anything involving fire, if possible. And for East Coasters who don’t know, wildfire ash can also ruin your car’s paint, as one veteran Californian explained online this week. “Don’t rinse it with water, which makes it worse,” she said. “Try to wipe it off dry, or cover your car if you can.”

Finally, climate change is to blame, right?

Well, kind of. It’s not that simple.

Determining the influence that climate change has played in a single weather event, or in this case, several hundred wildfires, is called attribution science. And it’s a tricky and complicated process.

So far, no attribution studies have made a climate connection with the ongoing wildfires in Canada, according to Carbon Brief. But as the London-based climate think tank notes, there are plenty of other studies that have generally shown how climate change is exacerbating heat waves, drought and other conditions that make wildfires more likely and more intense when they happen. 

One study, for example, found that climate change made a 2020 Siberian heat wave at least 600 times more likely, and those extreme temperatures in turn led to an outbreak of massive wildfires. Research has also found that climate change is lengthening the wildfire season in North America, meaning it starts earlier and ends later. That may have influenced the current Canadian fires, considering Quebec and other parts of Canada’s Atlantic region have been experiencing droughts since February.

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Today’s Indicator

31%

That’s the amount of electricity generated by solar and wind sources this May in the European Union, a new report found. It marks the first full month that renewables produced more power for the bloc than fossil fuels, which made up a record low of 27 percent last month.



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