Research Assigns Wildfire Smoke Back to Its Source

As wildfire smoke crosses states and borders more frequently, tracking and studying it is becoming increasingly important in shaping air quality and health measures around the world.

Ann Future research The findings of Stanford University researchers offer a new way to trace smoke and pollution over long distances back to individual wildfires.

What is burning in wildfires determines the type of pollution the smoke contains. Forest fires burn differently than swamp fires or building burning fires. As smoke travels, its chemical composition can change with time and distance.

The findings could help officials determine which wildfires are likely to pose the greatest health impact to the largest number of people, and allocate firefighting resources accordingly.

“I don’t think firefighting resources are often spent on fires that are the most damaging from a health perspective,” says Dr. Jeff Wen. He is a candidate for Earth System Science at Stanford University and the lead author of the study.

Other researchers have done similar studies before, but on a much smaller scale. The new study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, will be the first to include the entire continental United States, according to the authors.

“Historically, we have not been able to study these kinds of problems on broad spatial and temporal scales,” says Weng.

Wildfires have clearly become more frequent and intense in recent years, partly due to the effects of climate change drying out many landscapes. It’s less clear to scientists how the smoke from these fires changed over time. New research shows that smoke is getting worse as fires get worse. Between 2016 and 2020, the US population experienced twice as much smoke pollution as it did a decade earlier, between 2006 and 2010. Although the study focuses on historical data, the method can also be used to predict where smoke from new fires will travel.

The researchers focused on pollutants called particulate matter, which consist of very small solid particles suspended in the air. This contaminant can enter people’s lungs and blood, causing problems such as difficulty breathing, inflammation, and damage to immune cells.

Wen and his team used a new method to rank all wildfires observed in the United States between April 2006 and December 2020 by their resulting exposure to smoke. They found that the worst fires from smoke exposure occurred during this period. 2007 Bugaboo Fireburned more than 130,000 acres in and around the Okefenokee Marsh in Georgia and Florida.

Western states tended to have more large fires, which initially surprised the researchers. However, due to the dense population of the East Coast region, the smoke from the Bugaboo fire did not have to travel far, affecting millions of people. Peatlands like the Okefenokee Marsh also tend to burn slowly, releasing more particulate matter into the air, Weng said.

The worst fires in this ranking did not match up well with the worst fires in previous rankings, including acres burned and loss of buildings and infrastructure. The smokeiest fires did not necessarily have more firefighting resources.

“We often suppress fires primarily because they are an immediate threat to structures or life,” said Von Ford, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University who was not involved in the study. Stated. While it is important to save lives and help rural communities in imminent danger, it is important to focus only on the immediate and dangerous fires and how smoke exposure can harm many people at great distances. Ignoring one fire is a “short-term mindset.”

Dr. Ford and his colleagues have studied wildfire smoke patterns and the associated exposure to particulate matter pollution. But researchers at Stanford University, especially after so many years and so much land, have achieved something new by combining the two, she said.

One aspect of the study that Dr. Ford found problematic was treating all human exposure to particulate matter in smoke the same, regardless of where it occurred. People who are more vulnerable to air pollution depending on their age, pre-existing health conditions, other environmental factors, and whether precautions such as wearing face masks outdoors and using air filters indoors are taken Some, she said. Ford said future research could combine Wen’s method with existing vulnerability indices.

There are also more accurate ways to track and predict where smoke travels, says John Lin, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah who was not involved in the study. That aside, Dr. Lin thought the Stanford University study could go a long way toward understanding the true human toll of wildfire smoke.

It’s the “new normal” for smoke to travel long distances, he said. This reality calls into question the way governments have historically addressed air quality through regulations such as the Clean Air Act. Dr. Lin said that as pollution increasingly crosses borders, the way people manage air quality must evolve accordingly.

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