AUSTIN (KXAN) — 100 million people are facing air quality alerts as thick Canadian wildfire smoke streams into the northeastern U.S., leading to apocalyptic scenes in New York City similar to the infamous images from San Francisco during California fires in 2020.
The thick smoke traveling southward degraded air quality in five U.S. states to the “unhealthy” range. As Yale Climate Connections writers Bob Henson and Dr. Jeff Masters wrote on Thursday, “At 10 a.m. EDT Wednesday, June 7, the worst air in the U.S. was in Syracuse, New York, which had an hourly PM 2.5 AQI of 402 — well into the ‘Hazardous’ range. EPA warns that an AQI in this range will ‘trigger health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is even more likely to be affected by serious health effects.'”
Meteorologist Bob Henson, Yale Climate Connections writer and author of “A Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change”, joined the KXAN Chief Meteorologist live on KXAN News at 4 p.m. Thursday to discuss the role climate change is playing in the Canadian fires.
“They have had a very warm, dry spring and in fact, the hottest May on record across large parts of Canada,” Henson said. “That, in turn, allowed the landscape to dry out.”
According to Quebec’s fire prevention agency, the province typically sees 794 hectares burned by June 6 (10-year average). This year, the total to date is an astonishing 473,656 hectares, Henson writes.
Researchers with the University of Alberta found that the increase in the area burned by Canadian wildfires in the last four decades is the result of human-induced climate change (Gillett et al. 2004). Additional research found that warmer temperatures are the most important predictor of increases in burned area in Canada (Flannigan et al., 2005).
“In a word, the future is smoky,” researcher Mike Flannigan said.
And that smoke from burning boreal forest is blowing southward into the U.S.
“The airflow has set up in the last several days to just shuttle that smoke directly from Quebec down across the whole northeastern U.S., leading to probably one of the worst air quality events since the mid-20th century,” Henson said.
The changing climate is also influencing the duration of this dangerous air quality event in the northeast.
“Weather patterns are also appearing to get stuck a little more often,” Henson said. “The pinballs rolling through the jet stream around the globe just tend to lock into place more easily.”
Recent research from Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, found that just 17% of Americans think that climate change poses a ‘high risk’ to them. Henson said climate change-fueled events like this are an illustration that no area is immune from impacts.
“The weather and the climate don’t stop at international borders,” Henson said. “We tend to think of climate change affecting us or harming us in apocalyptic terms like ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. It could be losing several days of activity because of horrific smoke. It could be all sorts of things like that that are short of the end of the world, but still really damaging and destructive.”