The dirty air from wildfire smoke could occur two to three times more frequently a generation or two down the line, thanks to a vicious cycle that makes the smoky air itself cause more wildfires.
The bar is now so low with California wildfires and deteriorating air quality that comes with them, that we considered it progress that the infamous burnt orange sky only returned for a sunrise and sunset or two in 2021, rather than the full day-long nightmare of 2020. But the bigger-picture news is not good. The poor air quality comes thanks to particulate matter caused by the smoke, tiny particles that can remain in the air and affect air quality hundreds of miles away.
And there is more and more of that particulate matter every year. The Chronicle reports on a study that says “the Pacific Northwest and parts of Northern California could see particle pollution from wildfires increase more than 50% by the middle of the century,” and then triple by the end of the century, according to researchers.
The research was published today in the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which provides a free summary of the findings. “Fine particulate pollution over the US Pacific Northwest could double to triple during late summer to fall by the late 21st century under intermediate- and low-mitigation scenarios,” according to the paper’s abstract. “The historic fires and resulting pollution extremes of 2017–2020 could occur every 3 to 5 [years] under 21st-century climate change, posing challenges for air quality management and threatening public health.”
You’ll notice they referenced “mitigation scenarios,” which means the problem is correctable. But it also notes that if not corrected, the smoke itself will lead to more frequent wildfires down the line, because of the drying conditions it causes. But in addition to wildfires, the Chron notes the smoky air also causes “a vast array of previously unconnected health issues, from cardiovascular failure to birth defects to COVID-19.”
It’s hard to overestimate how the annual wildfires, which used to pretty much just be a California thing, now cover several western states, with haze that makes it all the way to the East Coast. It seems that smoky haze could even spread far further, and what we regionally call wildfire season could have effects all over the globe.
Image: Stephanie Rossi Chen/SFist