Wildfire smoke spreads across nation, contaminates air quality


Art by Vivian Spear.

Anjali Noel Ramesh

In the past five years, record breaking wildfires have plagued California, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The amount of land burned by the wildfires are at an all-time high, with over 10 million acres destroyed in 2020. The U.S. had 47,299 wildfires in total from Jan. 1, 2021 through Oct. 15, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The Interagency also stated there were 10 fires in California alone on Oct.15, the highest number out of all other states in the report.

In addition to leaving behind an excess amount of smoke, the wildfires also impact and are impacted by the general temperature of an area. The global temperature increase as a result of climate change and dryer conditions in general are factors associated with wildfires, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). A study from the United States Department of Agriculture showed the area burned by wildfires would increase by 600% if the temperature rose by one degree Celsius annually. The wildfires themselves, however, can cause lower level temperatures to drop because of sun blockage from the dense smoke cover, according to an article from National Geographic.

Core leader of environmental coalition, junior Fatima Hussain, said the impact of global climate change is far more local than it may seem. 

“While Missouri hasn’t necessarily made the news for some strange weather anomalies related to global climate change, it’s still important to consider the fact that the average temperature of the state has increased by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit,” Hussian said. “Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but considering the fragile balance of climate on our planet, that’s too much.”

Although the wildfires themselves are only in certain states, with multiple clustered in California, the residual smog is impacting states across the country. Regular wind patterns now also carry the excess smoke from western states to the East Coast, damaging the air quality of these states, according to data from the National Weather Service (NWS) in an article from CNBC. Seasonal cross-continental winds leave previously unaffected areas at risk because of the vast amount of smog.

Patrick Guinan, associate extension professor of Climatology at the University of Missouri—Columbia, said this month, a jet stream provides the wind strength to clean the air conditions in Missouri, which may be why he has not noticed smog in the skies. A jet stream is a river of strong upper level winds about 50,000 feet above the ground. Over the summer, however, he said the jet stream is not as active and thus there would have been a less clear atmosphere. 

Missouri experiences more stagnant air conditions during the summer, when the jet stream migrates northward and upper level winds are light,” Guinan said. “Also, a ridge of high pressure may develop in the region which makes the air stable and inhibits precipitation development. These stable air masses stay in place for weeks which leads to particulate accumulation in our atmosphere and hazy conditions.”

Guinan also said the rate at which the smog will spread depends on the winds that transport it. The dry currents from the Diablo winds in Northern California and the Santa Ana winds in the south are responsible for keeping the flames burning within California, according to earth.org. It is the jet stream, however, that transports the smoke across the country. Jet streams usually range between 80 and 140 miles per hour, and are some of the most powerful winds in the atmosphere. Data from the NWS Weather Prediction Center showed the jet stream carried the smoke through the Midwest, explaining the hazy skies in Missouri. 

In terms of impact on people, the longer the fires rage, the more detrimental the smoke will eventually become. In an interview with the National Public Radio, NWS meteorologist Julie Malingowski said although the smoke should stay high in the atmosphere as it travels away from the site of the fire, recently “an area of high pressure is pushing that smoke down toward the surface.”

Did you know?
The U.S. spends over $2 billion per year fighting wildfires and all resulting damage, according to Smithsonian magazine.
If the smoke gets low enough, the threat of exposure to PM 2.5 particles, fine pollutants that form from the fumes and can damage the respiratory tract, becomes very prominent, according to the
New York State Department of Health. Malingowski said when people protect themselves from fires and smoke, there is less chance of hospitalization from PM 2.5 exposure. The key is in communicating the dangers of smoke. Similarly, Hussain said part of environmental coalition’s goal is to express environment-related problems to the RBHS community.

“Currently, environmental coalition is working to clear out invasive species to return Missouri’s native biodiversity,” Hussain said. “But we are also working on putting out educational resources to be shared across the [Columbia Public Schools] district to spread awareness about certain environmental issues and how we can work towards tackling them.”

How do you feel climate change has impacted local communities like Columbia? Let us know in the comments below.