According to a new study, growing wild forests in the western US are taking a devastating toll on the area’s air quality, with the most air pollution now estimated at half the air pollution.
Scientists at Stanford University and UC San Diego have found that toxic plumes of smoke, which can blanket western states for weeks when wildfires occur, are reversing decades of gains in cutting air pollution. While heat-death deaths have previously been predicted as the worst result of a climate crisis, researchers say that air pollution caused by smoke can only be fatal.
“For many people in this country, they are about to experience climate change,” said Marshall Bork, an associate professor of earth sciences at Stanford and one of the study’s authors. “Wildfire’s contribution to poor air quality in the West has nearly doubled in the last 15 years.”
Air pollution from fine particles, known as PM2.5, was already known to take four months off the average American’s lifetime. And health researchers have only recently begun to understand the harrowing health consequences of increasing smoke exposure to the wider swaths of the US population.
Wildfire is rising in the American West overcoming the climate crisis. The 2020 firestorms were the worst in recorded history, with 31 people killed, 10,000 buildings destroyed or damaged, and more than 4 m acres burned in California alone. The vast swaths of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona were also scorched.
After California residents endured a month of orange-brown air filled with dangerous small particles, another set of Stanford researchers tracked a dramatic increase in hospitalizations for things like strokes, heart attacks, and asthma.
Postdoctoral researcher Bibek Paudel of Stanford’s Asthma Clinic found that in the five weeks after August five, there was a 60% increase in the incidence of hospital fires for stroke and related conditions. The number of lost pregnancies also doubled in the weeks following the fire – a startling discovery that researchers are still interpreting. Paudel also saw a significant increase in youth hospitalization for heart attacks and respiratory disease.
“I don’t think people are aware of the long-term health effects of wildfire smoke,” said Mary Prunicki, director of the Sean Ann Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford.
For decades, air quality in the US has improved due to a reduction in pollution from cars and factories mandated by the Clean Air Act. But in the last 40 years, the land burning in wildfires has fallen, Burke’s study has found.
The study, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, combined data from satellite images of smoke plums with measurements obtained from ground air monitoring to model total air exposure to record local air pollution. Does. The study included (and includes) all of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and west of Montana.
Plenty of smoke can be detected by satellite images while traveling around the country. But it is difficult to tell if they are low enough to affect air quality on the ground, so the study created statistical models of how pollution changed in specific locations after fire events, from satellites, air monitors, and data models Combination of information.
“Everyone knows that wildfires produce dirty air – so it’s not surprising,” Burke said. “What we were able to do in this study determines how large the contribution is. And we found that this is actually reversing a lot of progress that has been made in the air quality improvement across the country. ”
Surprisingly, the study found that wildfire smoke is spreading the effects of air pollution to whiter and wealthier populations. Historically, low-income communities have been the biggest casualties of air pollution, often because their homes are closest to freeways and factories. But smoke spreads pollutants to more extensive areas. Burke said that Western America, where the forests are most numerous, become whiter and richer than other areas of the country.
As journeys take place across the country, pollutants can cause harm to people living away from the fire, even in the Middle-East or East.
“Berkfire smoke is a burden that is shared much more equally than other pollutants,” Burke said.
However, other research has shown that when blankets are washed out in the area, low-income populations can suffer huge losses, as their younger and older homes provide less protection.
Ironically, one of the future solutions to all this smoke may be more firelight.
The increase in warmfires is due in part to warmer temperatures and drier conditions, but there is a growing consensus that this is a result of the country’s policy of suppressing fires, instead allowing occasional land burning.
“There is a huge amount of fuel on the ground,” Burke said. “Climate change is making it drier and making it more flammable.”
Burke said a policy of using prescribed water, which includes burning a carefully controlled fire to clean brushes, could be a major strategy in future years to reduce wildfire and cut dangerous smoke risks.
“The benefits can be quite large, but there are many important questions that need to be studied,” he said.
Otherwise, “under business as usual, years like 2020, which were historically off-the-charts, may be too high of a standard,” he said. “It’s awful to think.”