Wildfires in US Pacific Northwest impact air pollution patterns across North America

As blazes in the region increase in intensity and size evidence shows an entire continent’s air quality is being adversely effected. 

A team of scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) has found that levels of carbon monoxide increased sharply as wildfires spread across the US Pacific Northwest last August.

silhouette of trees during night time

The period of the year is particularly significant, as carbon monoxide is usually relatively low during summer due to chemical reactions in the atmosphere linked to changes in sunlight. That carbon monoxide levels have jumped is a clear sign of the extent of the impact from wildfire smoke, according to those involved in the study. 

‘Wildfire emissions have increased so substantially that they’re changing the annual pattern of air quality across North America,’ said NCAR scientist Rebecca Buchholz, the lead author. ‘It’s quite clear that there is a new peak of air pollution in August that didn’t used to exist.’

Carbon monoxide itself is not considered a significant health concern in the outdoors. However, the gas usually indicates the presence of other, more harmful pollutants. For example, aerosols and ground level ozone that tends to form on hot days. 

The findings – based on satellite observations of atmospheric chemistry and global inventories of fires tracked over the past two decades, in addition to computer modelling analysing the potential impact of smoke – are considered to have serious implications for human health. Wildfire smoke is linked to major respiratory problems, and may affect the cardiovascular system and worsen pregnancy outcomes. 

In related news, a UN report published earlier this year suggests wildfires will increase by 50% by 2100. 

Image credit:  Egor Vikhrev

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