Smoke From Western Wildfires Darkens the Skies of the East Coast and Europe

Blazes on the West Coast are creating hazy skies and spectacular sunsets in the East, but also raising health and climate concerns for people far from the fires.

Sep 19, 2020
The sun rises behind the skyline of lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center in a haze created by smoke from west coast wildfires in New York City on September 17, 2020.

The sun rises behind the skyline of lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center in a haze created by smoke from west coast wildfires in New York City on September 17, 2020. Credit: Gary Hershorn/Getty

Eighteen-year-old climate activist Calvin Yang looked up from a slice of pizza last Tuesday to find the sun an orange globe above the garden at his home on Long Island. 

He flashed back to his upbringing in Shanghai, China, where sun-darkening air pollution is a regular occurrence. Yang had left China with the expectation "to never see such calamity again."

But last week his new home's promise of increased protection from such disastrously polluted air was broken. 

Like many other New Yorkers, it wasn't until Yang read the news that he learned what was happening. Historic wildfires ravaging the West Coast last week sent plumes of smoke blowing across the country, even across the Atlantic ocean to reach the Netherlands, said John Homenuk, a meteorologist and founder of New York Metro Weather.

Yvonne Caruthers was running along the Hudson River early Tuesday morning when she noticed "the sun coming up through the smoke-haze," she said in a tweet. Instinctively, she grabbed for her smartphone and snapped a photo to share. 

"Definitely a smokey sunrise today," Caruthers captioned the eerie photo of NYC's milky sunrise, which she tweeted in response to a statement from the regional branch of the National Weather Service that included satellite imagery of the smoke from West Coast wildfires hovering high over the state, along with a shot of the smoky sky right outside the service's own office. 

With climate change increasing the amount of land burning in wildfires and lengthening the annual intervals in which they can burn, this first-time sighting for many East Coasters almost certainly won't be the last. Still, "it is anomalous in its own right," Homenuk said, to see such a dense haze blanketing the city from such faraway devastation.

Typically, the smoke coming from West Coast fires is at least 10,000 feet above ground level, said Homenuk, preventing any impacts to air quality or human health as far away as New York. He said the smoke seen so far on the East Coast has remained 10,000 to 20,000 feet up in the atmosphere. So while many people in the West can't avoid breathing the smoke, easterners remain safe—for the time being. 

But the conversation about the health impacts of wildfire smoke in the northeast could change dramatically if more wildfires burn in the region. Wildfires burning closer to northeastern states, or even in heavily forested states like Pennsylvania, could put smoke at ground level in the region, Homenuk said. The Southeastern U.S. is already becoming a wildfire hotspot, and is one of the smokiest parts of the country due to a combination of wildfires and prescribed burns.  

The smoke contains particle pollution which causes a range of health problems, especially for those with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma that already put people at higher-risk amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. And wildfire smoke itself is associated with increased vulnerability to the coronavirus. The threat of pollution from wildfires affecting air quality in East Coast cities like New York and Washington, D.C. may seem unlikely for now.

But as temperatures rise and create drier conditions in a range of U.S. forests due to the accelerating climate crisis, the smoke from "climate fires" is becoming more likely to darken New York's skies, and even irritate the lungs of its residents.

Already, New Jersey's Pine Barrens, which span 1.1 million acres—two percent of the state's land area that have long been shaped by fire—are becoming increasingly flammable due to rising temperatures and increasing drought. 

It's also possible that climatic changes will more often lead to atmospheric conditions that bring smoke that now tends to stay above 10,000 feet in altitude much closer to the ground, Homenuk said. In this case, poor air quality from more distant fires could affect the health of New Yorkers and people living elsewhere in the East.

But, for meteorologists, the future of wildfire smoke impacts on distant cities remains as hazy as New York's skies were this week. "In some sense, this is as new to us as it is to everyone else," said Homenuk, adding that many meteorologists are hard at work developing new experimental models around the movement of smoke. 

Beyond prompting new research, that lack of clarity may also spur people to action. Confused reactions from East Coasters—along with people in Europe witnessing the far-reaching effects of West Coast fires—"can be turned into something that's good because it's raising awareness as to what's actually going on," said Homenuk. 

Concern about the haze visible above their heads may help those in the East recognize the increasing threat of climate-driven wildfires, and how much more serious they may become without urgent action in the coming decades.

"Now that you can see it in your own sky, that's a good wake-up call," Homenuk said.

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