Above: Wildfire smoke forecast for 6 p.m. PST December 10, 2017.
(Originally published at 3:30 p.m. PST December 10, 2017)
The Thomas Fire is having a significant effect on the air quality in California. Some areas downwind of the fire to the northwest had “unhealthy” conditions at 2 p.m. Sunday, including Santa Barbara and Goleta. Forecasts show that smoke and ash will continue to affect the southern part of Santa Barbara County for the next several days. The Santa Ynez Valley and the northern parts of the County will see increasing impacts.
What do you find MOST interesting about this video?
Above: screen grab from the NASA video. This image is from August 31, 2017.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has put together an incredible animation that make it possible to track smoke, dust from Africa, and sea salt. “Sea salt?” you’re thinking? Yes, winds over the oceans pick up salt which becomes visible to sensors on the satellites making it possible to visualize wind patterns, including hurricanes, over the vast expanses of the oceans.
This visualization uses data from NASA satellites, combined with mathematical models in a computer simulation allow scientists to study the physical processes in our atmosphere.
I watched this five times seeing something different with each viewing. So what are you going to watch? Wildfire smoke in Canada? Smoke in Portugal? Smoke in the western U.S.? Smoke in the Southeast? Or dust coming from Africa? Or the wind patterns and hurricanes in the Atlantic? Or the smoke that begins on October 9 northeast of San Francisco generated from the destruction of thousands of homes? Or smoke from fires in Italy?
If you look VERY carefully, you will be able to see a little smoke from something very rare — a wildfire in Greenland, near the coast on the southwest side of the island intermittently between August 2 and 15. (More info about the fire in Greenland.)
I suggest clicking on the full-screen button at the lower right after you start the video. If you’re having trouble viewing it, you can also see it on YouTube.
Pollution from fossil burel-burning sources is decreasing but the air is getting dirtier during the wildland fire season.
As a long and brutal fire season in California starts to wind down, Climate Central issued a report that lays out links between climate change, wildfire, and health effects. The report, titled Western Wildfires Undermining Progress on Air Pollution, analyzes air quality trends from 2000 through 2016 in two large California air basins — the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley — that are heavily affected by pollution.
The report finds that while the air quality continues to improve as pollution from power plants, trucks and other fossil fuel-burning sources declines, it is getting dirtier during the fire season. Studies have shown that fire seasons in the West are getting longer and that more large wildfires are breaking out as temperatures rise.
“We focused on an especially bad actor called “fine particulate matter”, or PM2.5 — particles that can reach deep into the lungs and exacerbate a wide array of health problems such as asthma, heart disease, and premature birth. A lot of hard work has been done to decrease PM2.5 from other sources, so it’s troubling to see progress getting undercut by wildfires — and to know that a warming climate will likely have wildfires becoming more frequent and burning more area in California and the West,” said Todd Sanford, Ph.D. scientist with Climate Central.
Above: Firefighter working on a smoky wildfire at Buffalo Gap, South Dakota, March 3, 2016.
(Originally published at 10 p.m. MDT October 23, 2017)
This report by NBC News about the rising rates of cancer among firefighters exclusively shows the structural side of the job. Obviously they are exposed to different toxins than their wildland brothers, so it is unknown how much the data crosses over. One of the big differences between the two disciplines is that for structure and vehicle fires a breathing apparatus (BA) is always available. Firefighters on wildland fires NEVER have access to BAs, which only last for minutes, while they can be exposed to smoke for most of their shifts which on large fires are typically up to 16 hours. And wildland firefighters rarely have the opportunity to, as the video recommends, change clothes and shower within an hour after exposure.
In 2010 we began calling for the wildland fire agencies to conduct a study led by medical doctors and epidemiologists to evaluate the short and long term effects of smoke on firefighters. The federal agencies that should take the lead on this are the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service. State agencies with significant numbers of wildland firefighters need to also be involved.
It is possible that the agencies that employ firefighters do not want to expose the facts about the dangers of smoke. It could cost them money to change their practices, provide a safer workplace, and cover the costs of presumptive illnesses.
“On Wednesday [March 15, 2017] a Montana legislative committee voted down a bill that would have provided benefits for firefighters who developed a lung disease on the job. Republican Mark Noland of Bigfork said firefighters “know what they’re doing”, and:
That is their profession, that is what they chose, and we do not want to, you know, slight them in any way, shape or form, but it is something they’re going into with their eyes wide open.
That is asinine, ridiculous, reprehensible, and irresponsible.
He is assuming that when firefighters began their careers they knew there was a good chance they would damage their lungs. If that is common knowledge now, or was 20 years ago when the firefighter signed up, why haven’t the employers already established coverage for presumptive diseases? There is a great deal we do not know about the effects of breathing contaminated air on structure, vehicle, and wildland fires.
Many agencies and government bodies have already established a list of presumptive diseases that will enable health coverage for firefighters. For example the British Columbia government recognizes at least nine “presumptive cancers” among firefighters, including leukemia, testicular cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer, bladder cancer, ureter cancer, colorectal cancer, and non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma.
The Montana legislation would have only covered one of these nine illnesses.
When a person enlists in the military and they come home injured or permanently disabled, should we ignore them, saying they knew what they were getting into? Their “eyes were wide open”? How is treating firefighters injured on the job different? One could argue that they are both defending and protecting our homeland; one of them actually IN our homeland while the other may have been on the other side of the world.” [Update October 23, 2017: for example in an African country, Niger, many Americans have never heard of].
On September 5, 2017, residents of the Pacific Northwest awoke to ash falling from the sky like snow. But even as ash hit the ground, wildfires burning across the western United States and Canada lofted smoke high into the atmosphere. Some of it drifted all the way to Europe.
Snapshots of the smoke’s intercontinental journey are shown in the maps above. The data were collected from September 4–7 by the Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite (OMPS) on the Suomi NPP satellite. The maps show relative aerosol concentrations, with lower concentrations in yellow and higher concentrations in dark orange-brown.
Throughout the series, high concentrations of aerosols appear over their sources in the Pacific Northwest. But prevailing winds also swept up the high-altitude smoke aerosols and carried them east across the continent. On September 4, the smoke appears to have arrived over the U.S. Midwest, and by September 5 it reached Newfoundland. By September 6, the smoke cloud is obvious over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
“You can see that the smoke cloud on September 6 is part of the long stream of smoke emanating from the Pacific Northwest,” said Colin Seftor, an atmospheric scientist working for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It almost looks like it was flung across the Atlantic.”
By September 7, the smoke had arrived over Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. These aerosols are high in the atmosphere, so they are not a serious concern for near-ground air quality and human health. Still, it shows how events on one continent can have effects halfway around the world.
“It’s not that uncommon for smoke from fires in North America to reach Europe,” Seftor said. He has casually noticed, however, that the smoke clouds reaching Europe this year seem to be larger and thicker. He also points out that they seem to be more persistent; large fires in mid-August sent smoke to Europe that hung around for days.
Wildfires were burning long before these maps were compiled, and they continue to burn even now. This natural-color image shows smoke across the upper Midwest on September 13, 2017, as observed by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Record heat in parts of the U.S. West has been cited as a possible cause for the widespread fire activity this year—which was somewhat unexpected, given the region’s wet winter and spring.
“There has been a lot of smoke over the whole northern hemisphere this year, and that is somewhat striking to me,” Seftor said. “It’s going to take awhile for everything to dissipate.”
NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen and Jeff Schmaltz, using Suomi NPP OMPS data provided courtesy of Colin Seftor (SSAI), and MODIS data from LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response. Story by Kathryn Hansen.