Smoke from the devastating wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington turned blue skies to a washed-out white across the United States this week. Many cities, including New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., witnessed a few days of hazy skies and vibrant sunsets.
The smoke travelled eastward along a jet stream, a strong air current that circulates high above the ground, according to NASA. Smoke was even reported as far east as the Netherlands. Along with the smoke, small particles and chemicals called aerosols, which cause hazardous air quality, also moved east.
“Satellite images this morning show smoke aloft moving over much of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic,” the National Weather Service’s Baltimore-Washington office tweeted Tuesday morning. “This smoke is obscuring the sun, and will keep temperatures a few degrees cooler today than what would be observed if the smoke was not present.”
Notice that hazy, milky sky this morning? That is a result of smoke (well above our heads) from wildfires across the Western US. Notice that the smoke originates across the west and then gets pulled to the east due to the jet stream aloft. The haziness may increase later today. pic.twitter.com/wBOQHfpcmM— NWS Wakefield (@NWSWakefieldVA) September 15, 2020
Additionally, a westward cyclone sucked in clouds of smoke as it swirled over the Pacific Ocean this week. The storm and smoke have now travelled more than 1,300 miles over the ocean, creating a thick cloud visible from space, reports Anna Buchmann for the San Francisco Chronicle.
The massive fires continue to ravage the West Coast. As of September 13, more than 4 million acres have burned and at least 35 people killed by the fires. As forests and towns in Oregon, California, Washington and Idaho rapidly burn, plumes of ash fill the air.
The air quality in this region is now the worst in the world, topping the most polluted cities globally. In Oregon, particulates of ash and smoke have reached record levels in Portland, Eugene, Bend, Medford and Klamath Falls, reports the Guardian. In Bend, the air quality index measured more than 500, exceeding the upper limit of the scale.
Wildfire smoke contains dangerous pollutants like ozone, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic compounds and nitrogen dioxide, which can contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, reports Sarah Gibbens and Amy McKeever for National Geographic. When exposed to wildfire smoke for a temporary period, a healthy person may feel a sting in their eyes and trouble recovering their breath, but it remains unclear what the health effects of prolonged, yearly exposure might be.
“Wildfire smoke can affect the health almost immediately,” Jiayun Angela Yao, an environmental health researcher in Canada tells Erin McCormick for the Guardian.
In a study Yao co-authored, her team found that the number of ambulance dispatches related to asthma, lung disease and cardiac events increased by 10 percent within one hour fire smoke taking over Vancouver.
Forecasters predict that Oregon may experience rain in coming days as a lower-pressure system moves in from the Pacific Ocean, Rebecca Muessle, a National Weather Service meteorologist tells Luke Money and Richard Read for the Los Angeles Times. The precipitation may actually cause larger smoke plumes, much like dousing a campfire.
The smoke clouds that have travelled to central and eastern North America mostly remain high in the atmosphere, which makes the sky appear hazy but does not greatly impact the air quality on the ground. New York Metro Weather expects the smoke to clear in the east by the end of the week.