Are the Orange Skies Here to Stay?

As smoke lifts for East Coast cities this weekend, take a deep breath. And then hold it, because this might happen again.

Parts of Canada and the eastern United States are at risk for an unusually active fire season this summer. So this week’s great eastern smoke-out might be just the beginning of a summer smokeshow no one wants to see.

“There are hundreds of fires burning right now in Canada. They could burn for weeks, if not the whole summer. If you get the right conditions, they’ll flare up and produce a whole bunch of smoke again,” says Mike Flannigan, who studies wildland fires as research chair professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.  “And it will go wherever the wind tells it to go.”

Plumes of smoke from wildfires in Canada brought a cloud of despair to the eastern United States this week. Air quality warnings reached the “purple” and “maroon” level in New York and Washington at some points — steps beyond the “code red” air that had previously been the upper limit of awful for the East Coast.

The air quality was particularly bad because of both the immense size of the wildfires and the weather patterns that brought their smoke.

“The fires are bad, and the weather pattern over the United States is not moving very quickly,” says Andy Hoell, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “It’s causing the winds to push the wildfire smoke southward into the eastern United States.”

Coming out of the haze

Two plumes of smoke are expected to cycle over the northeast and mid-Atlantic and clear out by the weekend or early next week, according to a smoke forecast from NOAA meteorologists.

But will that mean blue skies from now on? Probably not.

“There will be more air pollution days because of wildfires, no doubt about that,” says Hoell. “Where they start, where they burn and also the weather patterns will determine how bad it will be in certain areas.”

Wildfire smoke contains fine particles of smoke and soot. The particles naturally move on air currents, and the heat of wildfires can push smoke higher into the atmosphere, helping it to travel longer distances. This week, a spinning low-pressure system allowed the smoke to hover low over East Coast cities for days. In a different weather scenario, rain or wind could have brought some relief.

The smoky air is a health risk, affecting the heart and lungs. The air quality warnings prompted closures of outdoor events at a time when they would usually be at their peak: Outdoor pools closed. Major League Baseball games were canceled in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. At a gym in the latter city, on a day that was otherwise 70 degrees and sunny, people lined up for treadmills, just to stay inside.

This is not the smoking hot summer anyone asked for.

Since the air pollution related to wildfires is so dependent on short-term weather forecasts, it is difficult to predict how much air pollution cities like New York or Washington, D.C., might experience over the rest of the summer as a result of wildfires.

But what we do know is that more wildfires are expected, and with them could come more poor air quality days.

Unusual summer fire threat

Ongoing drought and warm temperatures have created a tinderbox in Canada, which is experiencing what could become its worst wildfire season on record. Canada has had more wildfires in May and early June of 2023 than it usually has in the entire year. The fires have burned 10.6 million acres as of Friday — 12 times the average.

The outlook for Canada does not look much better for the rest of the summer.  Warm and dry conditions will continue to increase wildfire risk in most of Canada in June and July, according to a wildfire outlook from Canadian officials this week.

Meanwhile, the United States could see wildfire hot spots in atypical locations, including the Great Lakes and New England, according to a recent outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center.

“There is potential for above-normal fire activity for right now across the northern tier, the northern Great Lakes, and potentially later in the summer over the northern tier of New England,” says Steve Marien, a meteorologist and the Eastern Area Fire Weather Program Manager for the National Park Service.

This is not normal for the eastern region, where the wildfire season is usually quiet in the lush green early days of summer and heats up when things dry out in the late summer and fall. The elevated fire danger is due to recent and upcoming hot, dry weather, drying out plants that could fuel fires.

A recent update from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows a map blotted in drought warnings from Virginia to Vermont and over much of the Midwest. That’s highly unusual for this time of year, but Marien says eastern conditions can change quickly. A flash drought could develop in parts of the Midwest and Northeast or with some luck, rain could restore the region.

“It is unusually dry for early June in the Great Lakes and there are above normal temperatures, that is what is exacerbating the situation,” Marien says. “There is quite a bit of drought either in development or in place … especially in the northeastern quarter of the US. It’s abnormal for this early in the summer.”

The new normal?

Recent fires have previewed what could be in store for the rest of the summer. A wildfire near Grayling, Mich., last weekend burned more than 2,000 acres and forced evacuations before it was contained. The National Weather Service issued warnings last week for critical fire risk in Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Wildfires are natural. But this many wildfires in the first weeks of June is not the norm. As climate change brings hotter, dryer weather, wildfire seasons are getting longer and more intense. And some of the fires are burning hotter and longer because there is so much dry fuel available to feed the flames.

“There’s always been fire and smoke but we’re seeing more of it, because the Earth is warming,” says Flannigan, the wildfire and climate scientist. “There is going to be more smoke and more impacts, whether it is blocking sunlight or the health impacts. That is the new world and the new reality we are living in.”

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