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Wildfire smoke will get worse, new study says, and protections are scarce

More than 125 million Americans will be exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution by mid-century, largely because of increased smoke from wildfires, according to estimates released Monday.

Yet there are few good ways to protect communities, experts say. The United States is now better able to deal with other climate perils, like floods, hurricanes and even wildfires. Smoke is different: it’s harder to anticipate, get people to take it seriously, and keep it out of homes.

“With wildfire smoke in particular, we’re not going to adapt our way out of the problem,” said Brian G. Henning, director of the Institute for Climate, Water and Environment at the Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Address.”

In the 1950s, air pollution in the United States began to steadily improve, largely because of increased regulations, according to the First Street Foundation, the research group that published the report. Then, starting around 2016, the trajectory reversed.

This change is visible in the Air Quality Index, which measures the concentration of tiny particles in the air, which can be absorbed through the lungs and into the bloodstream, as well as ozone, another harmful pollutant . For nearly a decade, average air quality readings have been deteriorating.

According to First Street, there are two main causes for this change, both linked to climate change. First, extreme heat increased ozone levels in the air. Second, and more consequential: Increased heat and drought have made wildfires worse, causing more smoke to reach more of the United States.

This can cause serious health hazards.

Inhaling tiny particles in wildfire smoke is linked to stroke, heart disease, respiratory disease, lung cancer and premature death, according to Susan Anenberg, director of the Climate and Health Institute. George Washington University. “The higher the level of pollution and the longer the duration of exposure,” she says, “the greater the risk. »

This level of pollution is expected to worsen considerably.

First Street has projected changes in air pollution, based on models that predict extreme heat and wildfires. The group estimates that by 2054, more than 125 million Americans will be exposed to at least one day of “red” air quality each year, the level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes as unhealthy. This represents a 50 percent jump from this year.

Eleven million Americans are expected to experience at least one day reaching purple on the index, which the EPA calls “very unhealthy.” The highest risk level, brown, is what the EPA calls “hazardous,” and according to First Street projections, nearly two million Americans will be exposed to at least one such day by 2054.

“Some parts of the country are expected to see months of poor air quality days,” said Jeremy R. Porter, climate implications manager at First Street and lead author of the report. “These statistics are staggering and will gradually make certain regions of the country relatively unlivable. »

By 2054, New York City is expected to experience eight days per year where the air quality index will be orange or worse, meaning the air will be unhealthy for at least some sensitive groups. That’s up from six days this year.

Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous, is expected to see 54 orange days or worse, up from 47 this year.

The worst effects will be felt in California’s Central Valley. Fresno and Tulare counties could each face unhealthy air 90 days a year, the study found. Air pollution in Fresno County is expected to reach “hazardous” levels three weeks a year.

Experts say the best way to combat wildfire smoke is to stop global warming, which would involve dramatically reducing the amount of oil, coal and natural gas humans burn. But this remains far from achievable: while U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have declined in recent decades, global emissions continue to rise.

The Biden administration is also trying to limit wildfires by reducing the amount of flammable vegetation on federal lands, through prescribed burns and other strategies. But these treatments are expensive and tend to cover relatively small areas, limiting their effect.

That leaves state and local governments with only one option: try to protect residents from the smoke that will increasingly reach their communities. But the obstacles are enormous.

Engineers and emergency managers have become better at mitigating the effects of other climate disasters. Flood-prone areas can be protected by walls and storm pumps, or by raising buildings off the ground. Homes threatened by hurricanes can be fortified against wind and flying debris. Even the direct threat of wildfires can be significantly reduced by reducing vegetation around homes and using building materials that do not burn easily.

Wildfire smoke is different.

As last year’s wildfires in Canada showed, smoke can travel great distances without warning. Unlike flooding, the movement of smoke through a community cannot be easily guessed by mapping local topography, nor can it be blocked or diverted.

This makes wildfire smoke more akin to extreme heat. But unlike heat waves, people cannot respond by shifting their activities to dawn or evening. And people may not know when they are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.

“You can’t always see it,” said Paige Fischer, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, who studies responses to extreme smoke. “You don’t really feel the advanced health impacts until much later. »

Governments are working to improve their warning systems, for example by sending notifications to citizens’ phones. But those most at risk are often older or don’t speak English, according to Crystal Raymond, a climate adaptation specialist at the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. “There is a very big communications challenge,” said Dr. Raymond.

Even though people know the air is dangerous, their options are limited. The most common direction is to take shelter in houses or other buildings. However, not all structures offer protection.

“Unless you have central air and central air with a good filter, there is no reason to believe that indoor air quality is significantly better than outdoor air quality,” said Dr. Henning, of Gonzaga University. Without a filtration device, he added, “the only thing that filters indoor air is your lungs.”

Lori Moore-Merrell, the U.S. fire administrator, is responsible for fire research and public education. In a statement, she said local authorities should give people without an air filter at home, or those who are homeless, information about where they can find what she called “shelters for purer air.

Dr. Henning’s team is using an EPA grant to set up such a shelter, installing an expensive air filtration system at a community center in Spokane, Washington. But his worry is that some people don’t recognize the danger they are in. and will remain in homes that have become dangerous.

Those who must work outside are also particularly difficult to protect. Dr. Moore-Merrell said outdoor workers should use equipment such as N95 masks, which filter smoke.

But it’s not as easy as it sounds, according to Natalie Herbert, a research scientist at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability who has studied community responses to smoke. For masks to work, they must fit properly and be worn at all times. “When it’s really hot and there’s smoke, it’s going to be uncomfortable,” Dr. Herbert said.

Authorities across the country are responding in different ways.

A spokeswoman for New York City’s Office of Emergency Management said that since last summer, when smoke from Canada turned orange, the city has worked to improve interagency coordination and public communication. When asked how New York plans to protect people who work outdoors or don’t have air conditioning, she referred questions to City Hall, which did not respond.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which includes Fresno County, is transforming schools, libraries and other spaces into clean air centers, and has also distributed air filtration units air to people living in disadvantaged communities, according to Heather E. Heinks, a spokeswoman.

Without more options to protect themselves, people may feel like they have no choice but to endure the smoke, Dr. Henning said. “Does it fit?” He asked. “I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, it’s just suffering.

Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.

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