The Impact on Air Quality

Hotter temperatures are widely recognized as a consequence of climate change but there are other repercussions to the world getting hotter. On top of the change in temperature, climate change can result in extreme air pollution, severe droughts, and the expansion of an already intense wildfire season.

Wildfire season is at its strongest during late Summer/ early Autumn when wildfire fuels are at their driest. According to the Guardian, “California’s fire risks typically peak in the autumn, when a trifecta of conditions align to fuel the flames. Vegetation that has spent months drying under the summer sun turns to tinder, especially when gusty winds typical for the season pick up and humidity drops.”

According to National Geographic, “Wildfires can start with a natural occurrence—such as a lightning strike—or a human-made spark. However, it is often the weather conditions that determine how much a wildfire grows. Wind, high temperatures, and little rainfall can all leave trees, shrubs, fallen leaves, and limbs dried out and primed to fuel a fire.”

With the climate continuing to get hotter, extreme droughts and severe temperatures will become the fuel wildfires need to become more common occurrences, exasperating the cycle of high-temperature days and the release of high volumes of pollutants into the air.

Wildfires release smoke that is made up of a mixture of gasses and particles that are created when materials burn. This smoke can have an even farther impact than the fire itself, spreading through communities, working its way into peoples’ homes, and even moving across the country pushed by wind and weather. According to Forbes, “Recent research by the American Lung Association found that smoke from large fires can spread over hundreds or thousands of miles, polluting the air breathed by millions of people.”

“The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system – whether you are outdoors or indoors, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. Fine particles can also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases - and even are linked to premature deaths in people with these conditions,” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency

Wildfires don’t just affect our air quality, they also release large amounts of carbon dioxide and other gasses into our atmosphere, contributing to the emissions that are already influencing climate change. This is a cyclical issue. Climate change creates hotter and drier environments that fuel wildfires and wildfires release large amounts of pollutants that contribute to the warming of our world.

According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, for the U.S. West Coast, every 1 degree Celsius of warming is projected to “increase the median burned area per year as much as 600 percent in some types of forests. In the Southeastern United States modeling suggests increased fire risk and a longer fire season.” This means wildfires could span more of the United States and there could be an increase in the wildfire season overall.

According to the California Air Resources Board, there are multiple ways to protect yourself and your home from harmful wildfire smoke. The most important thing is to stay inside when air quality reaches dangerous levels and keep all windows and doors closed. “If you have a central ducted air conditioning and heating system, be sure to set the system to “on” to ensure air is being filtered constantly, rather than “auto,” which runs the system intermittently. If your system brings fresh air into the home, close the fresh-air intake so that it operates in recirculation mode to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside.” High-efficiency air filters are also a great option to help filter the air coming into your home. To read their full list of recommendations click here.