The East Coast’s Smoke Could Last Until October
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
First it hit Chicago and Milwaukee. Then Detroit, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. Now it’s back in New York.
Smoke from far-north wildfires returned to the United States and Canada this week, canceling concerts and summer camps, and sending up “Code Red” air-quality alerts across the continent. On Friday, four of the five cities with the world’s worst air pollution were in eastern North America.
The wildfire smoke’s return raised the specter of a long, hot, smoky summer. When wildfire smoke first smothered the East Coast in early June, the fluorescent sky seemed almost like a curiosity. Historians had to go back centuries — to New England’s “Dark Day” of 1780 — to find an appropriate comparison.
Now, they only need to remember a few weeks earlier. Much like how the successive waves of COVID-19, once a terrifying and confusing new reality, slowly became a tedious (but no less dangerous) fact of life, the wildfire smoke has become — and will probably remain — a part of the East Coast’s summer.
Pending a meteorological surprise, the wildfire smoke is likely to return periodically throughout the rest of the summer. The smoke probably won’t fully go away until late September or early October, when Quebec’s fire season ends.
“A lot of the wildfires are in western Quebec, right near Hudson Bay. About 34 wildfires have been left completely to burn,” Matthew Capucci, a Washington, D.C.-based meteorologist, told me. Recent weather patterns have been so dry — and there’s so little rain on the horizon — that almost nothing suggests those fires are likely to go out any time soon, he said.
“Nothing’s gonna put the fires out. They’re gonna keep burning,” he said. The first real break in the pattern is likely to come with the return of hard snowfall and cold weather in three or four months. Until then, every northwest wind will bring clouds of smoke to the eastern United States and Canada.
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That is despite any fire-fighting that Canada can manage, Michael Wara, a senior researcher at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, told me.
For now, hundreds of American firefighters are essentially on loan to the Canadian government’s firefighting effort. America can spare those hotshot crews because few wildfires are raging in the Lower 48. But as fire season heats up south of the border, those firefighters will have to return home, and Canada will have fewer resources with which to battle the flames.
The location of the fires also makes them particularly tricky to fight. Many of the blazes are in remote, unpopulated stretches of boreal forest. Almost no roads exist to carry crews close to the blaze; few airfields, if any, are close enough — or large enough — to allow federal air tankers to operate in the area and drop flame retardant.
“To understand the landscape, go watch an episode of Alone,” Wara said, alluding to the History Channel reality show where 10 people must each survive by themselves in the remote Canadian wilderness for months at a time. “That’s what we’re talking about here.”
This is the worst Canadian wildfire year on record. More than 29,500 square miles of forest have burned, an area larger than the state of West Virginia. In 1989, when the previous wildfire record was set, it took 12 months for that much forest to burn. But this year has already surpassed the old record in barely more than six.
Climate change has warmed the Canadian boreal forest faster than almost anywhere else in the world. The biome’s average temperature has already increased 1.9 degrees Celsius, or nearly three and a half degrees Fahrenheit, since the mid-20th century.
“These ecosystems are out of equilibrium. They have to change. And one of the ways that ecosystems change is that they burn,” Wara, the Stanford researcher, said. “We can’t really prevent this. We can’t really control what is essentially a planetary-scale process of fire.”
Perhaps the worst news for the eastern United States is that wildfire smoke is most likely to hit the region during periods when the weather would otherwise be coolest. As The Washington Posthas reported, eastern summers normally have a predictable rhythm: southerly winds bring hot, humid air, while northerly winds provide a respite of cooler, drier air. But this year, those northwest winds will bring clouds of eye-watering smoke.
For the past few years, western North America has been walloped by two climate-change-related disasters: extreme heat and seasonal bouts of wildfire smoke. Marshall Burke, a Stanford economist, has said that wildfire smoke has caused some of the biggest economic losses of climate change so far, at least out West.
“For California, extreme heat and extreme smoke have become the fingerprint — or even the footprint, since it feels like you’re being stepped on — of climate change,” Wara said. “I think the East has been somewhat spared from that so far, thankfully.”
But that holiday may be ending. The East Coast is facing a long, hot, smoky summer.
Read more about the wildfire smoke: