Smoke from US wildfires spreads across country and into Europe

Smoke from the devastating U.S. wildfires is spreading across the country, moving north into Canada and across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.

Thousands of miles away from the fires, which originated in California and have spread along the U.S. west coast, people are being exposed to some of the fires’ effects, which includes carbon monoxide and smog, emerging research is showing.

Monday (Sept. 14), NASA shared images from the agency’s joint Suomi NPP satellite with NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), showing the jet stream and winds that have swept smoke and small particles known as aerosols across the United States.

The smoke particles will “bring hazardous air quality across the country,” NASA warned in the statement on Monday. “Aerosols are a mixture of small particles and chemicals produced by the incomplete burning of carbon-containing materials such as trees, grasses, peat and brush. All smoke contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and particulate matter … The smaller the particles, the easier they are to be inhaled and absorbed into the lungs.”

Pollution from aerosols is associated with a range of adverse health effects, NASA said in the same statement, quoting the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance. These health effects can range from burning eyes to runny noses, aggravated heart and lung diseases and more. At worst, such pollution can cause premature death. 

A Nature Geoscience study in May 2017 showed that particle pollution from wildfires was three times worse for human health than previously thought, and this pollution can include noxious chemicals such as methanol, benzene and ozone.

NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder, which is aboard the Aqua satellite, is tracking carbon monoxide plumes from the wildfires. The agency noted that the pollutant can remain in the atmosphere for a month after its release and travel great distances, affecting air quality as it goes. Carbon monoxide is also a known contributor to global warming.

The United States is not alone in suffering the effects of these fires. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. said on Tuesday (Sept. 15) that the smoke has drifted into at least five Canadian provinces. The European Space Agency (ESA) is also tracking smoke-borne activity across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe, through its Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) that uses Earth-gazing satellites for weather and climate predictions. CAMS is also tracking carbon monoxide at different heights in the atmosphere.

“Comparing fire activity in the U.S. against previous years, CAMS has seen that activity this year has been tens to hundreds of times more intense than the 2003–2019 average in the U.S. in general, as well as in several affected states,” ESA stated on Wednesday (Sept. 16). “The fires are also emitting lots of smoke and pollution into the atmosphere; those in California and Oregon have already emitted far more carbon in 2020 than in any other year since CAMS records begin in 2003.”

“The fact that these fires are emitting so much pollution into the atmosphere that we can still see thick smoke over 8,000 kilometers [5,000 miles] away reflects just how devastating they have been in their magnitude and duration,” added Mark Parrington, CAMS senior scientist, in the ESA statement.


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