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Study finds Western wildfires impacted air quality in NY

Hazy conditions in Queens, NY on July 20, 2021. Researchers believe the air quality was impacted by western wildfires.
NYS Mesonet
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Hazy conditions in Queens, NY on July 20, 2021. Researchers believe the air quality was impacted by western wildfires.

A new study led by researchers at the University at Albany finds wildfires in the northwestern U.S. and southwestern Canada are negatively impacting air quality in New York. The paper, which uses data from a network of weather stations known as the New York State Mesonet, was published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Lead author Bhupal Shrestha, a senior research support specialist with UAlbany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, spoke with WAMC's Jim Levulis.

Shrestha: In July 2021, we saw a major peak, maximum values of PM2.5 That's called particulate matter, or aerosols that are in the air. Those values were exceedingly higher than the U.S. EPA standards for 24 hours. And we saw those two events in July, that was one from 18 to 20 July, and then 25 to 27 July. So those two events like we saw, accidentally hire PM2.5 values. Those data were collected in New York State from DEC sites, Department of Environmental Conservation. So whenever we checked those values from across the state, those values were exceedingly higher for those two episodes. And we were trying to dig into the reason why those two values were really high. And then as we were digging and using our data sets from the New York State Mesonet, we have a 17 profiler sites across the state. Each profiler sites has a Doppler LiDAR that measures wind and aerosols. And another one is a microwave radiometer that measures the temperature and humidity profile. So whenever we were looking at the data from the especially from the Doppler LiDAR, in this study, we saw a significant concentration of aerosols aloft, like two to six kilometers. And we were trying to see how those two to six kilometers aerosols were there across New York State. I mean, those aerosols appeared in the New York State in Buffalo on the western side, much earlier than downstate sites like Queens, the Bronx or Stony Brook. That gives us an idea that is the same air mass that's moving from the western side of the New York to the eastern side of the New York. So while trying to find out what's the source of those aerosols that appeared in our data sets, we were trying to look at different satellites, data and then different models and everything. Then we kind of concluded that those air mass, that appeared in our data sets were coming from mostly Southwestern Canada. So there was a bunch of wildfires that occurred, like 7 to 10 days earlier than those data sets where we saw the significant amount of aerosols. So 7 to 10 days prior to that event, we saw like significant amount of wildfire activities in the southern Canada. And we kind of tracked the path of those air mass, or the smoke that's coming from those wildfires. And it appeared that the wildfire smoke that’s coming from southern Canada was the same thing that was seen by our observation by the Doppler LIDAR. And we kind of verified with the satellites, and then different models to verify those things. And it exactly matches so that whatever we were seeing from a Doppler LIDAR from our 17 stations across New York State, was the wildfire that came from southern Canada.

Levulis: And so the impact seen in upstate New York, the result of singular, or a couple of fires and not the cumulative effects of multiple fires, is that right?

Shrestha: No, it's not a singular fire. It's multiple. Because there were extensive wildfire activities in southern Canada. The wildfires were over a huge area, so it's not a single fire. We can’t precisely say it's a single fire, but we can look at a region where they were there was extensive wildfire activities. So it's basically a cumulative wildfire smoke.

Levulis: I see. And this sounds sort of similar to the damage caused by acid rain in the Adirondacks in that the source was not in the region here. It was industrial sites in the Midwest. So is it sort of the same atmospheric actions that are bringing the pollutants to this region here?

Shrestha: Yeah it’s somewhat similar because the wildfire smoke that originated from southern Canada eventually traveled through the little bit to the Midwest like Michigan or Wisconsin areas, and then they drifted towards Buffalo, and then slowly towards the downstate region. So yeah, it was a kind of similar pattern.

Levulis: And what are the specific implications of increased levels of air pollutants less than the 2.5 micrometers that you detailed?

Shrestha: These particles are really tiny, at less than 2.5 micrometers. So, they are easily inhalable, we can easily breathe in those particles, and those particles reach deep into our lung system and affect our health badly. There has been a number of studies that the PM2.5 are the reasons why the people have different like respiratory diseases like asthma or different cardiovascular diseases, and a number of deaths and so on. So, there has been a history of these pollutants directly affecting people's health. And yeah, these pollutants are really small and they can stay in the air for a long time. But if we have filters or if we have masks, we can really prevent those particles entering into our lungs. So yeah, using those filters or even wearing a mask definitely helps.

Levulis: And as you mentioned, the study uses data from July of 2021. And as you note and others have noted, wildfires in the western part of the continent are likely to increase in frequency and intensity. So, are more studies specifically or more data collection specifically focused on this sort of issue, are they planned?

Shrestha: Yes, specifically for our New York State Mesonet profiler network, we are planning to develop, based on this observation from our systems, we are planning to develop models are something that can really you know, predict the pollutants like PM2.5 in the case of like wildfire activities or those things. So yeah, it is definitely a concerning thing and because of the climate change and everything the wildfires are increasing in the western US and southern Canada Day by day and these are the reasons that the PM2.5 are increasing in recent years even though we have the control or the regulations by the government. Even though the regulation and anthropogenic pollutants are decreasing, man-made pollutants are decreasing, wildfires are causing these PM 2.5 to increase. So definitely because of the climate change and all those kinds of things is concerning that these pollutants are increasing, even though we have a strict regulations from the government and everything.

Levulis: And do you know after, you know, the pollutants make their way, you know, obviously we've talked about they've made their way from the west to the east here in New York, do they continue east out into the Atlantic Ocean? Or do they go north? Do they change direction? Do you have any knowledge of that?

Shrestha: Yeah, definitely. Like some of the studies we did in the past, like in 2017 and 2018, some of the wildfires that were generated from southern Canada or Western US. They were at a higher altitude that they really missed the eastern US and reached as far as Europe. Wildfire smoke was detected in the UK or Spain or France, those areas in Europe. It totally depends on the meteorological conditions, or the wind pattern and everything. This time in 2021, somehow, all the pollutants were really descending and ended up in the Eastern US, mostly in New York State, or the other are a little bit further down. And then into the Atlantic, but it really didn't reach as far as Europe this time.

Levulis: I see. So it could be the case to that, you know, even though they're less frequent wildfires on the East Coast, those pollutants could also reach Europe?

Shrestha: Oh, yeah, it definitely can reach. Yeah, it depends on like, how much wildfire is there like the intensity of the wildfire and so on. We had a little wildfire in one of these New York state parks in the Hudson Valley.

Levulis: Minnewaska State Park.

Shrestha: Yeah. It wasn’t that extensive compared to what we usually see from the West Coast, and southern Canada. But yeah, those wildfires really didn't affect much in that case. So it definitely depends on the frequency, the number of wildfires and the intensity of the wildfires.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org