One of the more widespread geographic impacts of intensive wildfires is how far the smoke travels.
Smoke from wildfires can rise up high into the atmosphere. This high-altitude smoke, along with pollutants and particulates, can then travel for thousands of miles and affect areas far away.
Recent years has seen an increase in the number and intensity of wildfires, fueled in part by climate change.
Smoke from wildfires poses a health risk
From a health perspective, wildfire smoke poses significant risks. Winds transport pollutants from wildfires such as carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
The small particulate matter (PM2.5) present in smoke can penetrate deep into the lungs, leading to various respiratory issues such as exacerbated asthma, bronchitis, and other chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.
Long-term exposure may even result in decreased lung function and the development of cardiovascular diseases.
The increase in wildfires is impacting the environment
Smoke from wildfires is not just impacting human health.
Ecosystems, both terrestrial and aquatic, can experience negative impacts due to deposition of ash and pollutants.
Smoke can reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface, disrupting photosynthesis in plants, impacting agricultural yield, and altering the functioning of local ecosystems.
How wildfire smoke travels so far in North America
Each year, smoke from wildfires occurring on the western side of North America travels to the eastern side of the continent.
Smoke and ash from wildfires is lofted high up in the Earth’s atmosphere. There, the jet stream carries the smoke eastward where winds move the gases and pollutants down towards the surface.
Typically, smoke from western North American wildfires is swept out over the Atlantic sea and away from population centers. In early June of 2023, smoke from western Canadian wildfires is being pushed down along the northeastern region of the United States by a coastal low.
Using remote sensing to track wildfire smoke
NASA is able to track the movement of wildfire smoke through its GEOS Forward Processing (GEOS-FP) model.
GOES-FP integrates data from satellites, aircraft, and terrestrial observation systems to track black carbon (wildfire soot) as it moves through the Earth’s atmosphere. GEOS-FP uses meteorological data such as air temperature, humidity, and wind patterns to predict the plume’s actions.
Wildfire smoke from Canada descends into the United States
The intense wildfires happing in June 2023 in Canada are sending significant amounts of wildfire smoke into the United States. As the weather patterns shift, the smoke is settling into different regions of the United States.
Eastern United States
From Ryan Stauffer, an atmospheric scientist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center:
“The surface smoke pollution from New York to the D.C. region is easily the most significant since at least July 2002, when a similar situation occurred with nearby fires in Quebec. This event is rivaling, and in some cases will likely surpass the observed 2002 smoke pollution.”
A view of Purple Air sensors on June 8, 2023, shows that while air pollution conditions have improved slightly from the day before, the air pollution levels for many parts of the northeastern U.S. are still very high.
Canadian wildfire smoke enters the U.S. Midwest
Wildfire smoke from fires burning predominately in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan was carried across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North and South Dakota on June 14, 2023.
This article was originally written on June 8, 2023 and has since been updated with new information.
Cassidy, E. (2023, June 5). Fires burn across Quebec. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/151430/fires-burn-across-quebec
Cassidy, E. (2023, June 15). Smoke blankets the upper Midwest. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/151468/smoke-blankets-the-upper-midwest