Western wildfire smoke that lays haze on Columbus skies could increase as fires worsen

Climate Columbus

Research shows link between rising emissions, worsening wildfires

Columbus haze sunset 9-13-2021

A truck drives on Johnstown Road in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 13, 2021, as the sun sets behind some trees, appearing hazy because of wildfire smoke that drifted from the Western U.S. (Ben Orner/NBC4)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Sunrises and sunsets looked different in Central Ohio earlier this week and over the weekend, as a layer of haze tinted the horizon and gave the sun a crisp, glowing border.

That haze, however, was not local. Instead, it was wildfire smoke that traveled more than 3,000 miles from the Western U.S., mainly California and Oregon.

“We’ve had a lot of fast-moving air literally grabbing the smoke from the wildfires, shooting it up and over into Ohio,” said NBC4 meteorologist Liz McGiffin.

“We’ve been fortunate,” she said, that the smoke’s toxic particulate matter stayed in the upper levels of the atmosphere and was thus not high enough to cause alarm. But air quality in Columbus did drop slightly.

The city’s overall daily Air Quality Index reading amid the smoke topped out at 58 on Monday, a level considered “moderate” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and harmful to sensitive populations if they spend a long time outside.

EPA Air Quality Index AQI table
The U.S. EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI) table. (Screenshot via AirNow.gov)

The median day in Columbus last year saw an AQI of 41 – “good,” according the EPA – and Monday’s AQI of 58 was still on the lower end of concerning for sensitive groups. But even if such conditions are not especially damaging to the heart and lungs, they can bother people with allergies and even people who wear contact lenses.

“More of those pollutants in the air, which in this case could actually be ash from the fires, is enough that it can irritate your eyes, irritate your nose,” McGiffin said.

And “if the smoke lingers long enough,” similar to a high pollen day, she added, “it could be going from a healthy day to a moderate day to unhealthy for sensitive groups.”

More fires in the West, more smoke in the East

This year and last year have been astoundingly fiery years in the western states. California, for example, has seen eight of its top 20 blazes in history since 2020, as well as 17 of the top 20 since 2000.

The Dixie Fire is on track to eclipse 1 million acres burned, closing in on the record set last year at 1,032,648.

top 20 largest california wildfires
All but three of California’s largest wildfires have occurred since 2000, and eight have been in the past two fire seasons. (Chart via Cal Fire/Twitter; as of Sept. 10, 2021)

The culprit? A 20-year megadrought across the West has been worsened by human-caused climate change, as higher temperatures, less rainfall and smaller snowpack have dried land, forests and water bodies.

“Warming from heat-trapping pollution is drying out forests, grasslands and other landscapes, increasing the likelihood that destructive fires will erupt and spread,” according to an August analysis by Climate Central.

Researchers found that “fire weather days,” when hot, dry and windy conditions are ideal for wildfires to start, have increased and will continue to increase as climate change worsens. In north-central California, where the Dixie Fire started, fire weather days have increased 12 days since 1973.

Fire weather days Sacramento drainage Climate Central 2021
(Graphic via Climate Central)

That area’s increase is on the lower end, however. Seven regions across Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas have each seen increases of more than 50 fire weather days.

“As wildfire weather becomes more prevalent,” reads Climate Central’s analysis, “there are more days when extreme conditions can blow small blazes up into big ones or fuel the continued growth of large wildfires.”

This week was not the first time that haze fuzzed the capital city skyline this fire season. Western and Canadian wildfire smoke passed over Columbus in late July. And one of the fires providing this week’s smoke — the Dixie Fire — contributed to July’s haze, too, blazing out west for more than two months now.

Reddish-range sun glows through the haze a half-hour before sunset on July 21, 2021, in central Ohio. (Ben Gelber/NBC4)

McGiffin noted it’s not just the frequency of recent fires that’s concerning for Ohio, it’s the size. The largest blazes, like the Dixie Fire, are the ones that linger long enough to “have impacts all the way down to impacting our air quality.”

“A bigger fire,” she explained, “it just has more momentum to travel, more momentum to carry those little particles with it. And especially the more sensitive you are to things – like your allergies – the more you might notice that your eyes are a little more itchy (or) you might be sneezing a little more.”

Lowering emissions can ease future fire seasons

One reason that human-caused planetary warming spells danger for western wildfire seasons, McGiffin said, is a carbon emissions feedback loop: People emit carbon into the atmosphere, the atmosphere warms, drought worsens, then wildfires worsen and burn even more carbon into the atmosphere.

“It’s scary to see the vicious cycle that’s being set up from accelerating greenhouse emissions from these fires,” she said, “which in turn is going to help to warm things up and potentially just set us up for worse and worse fire seasons.”

Because climate change can be caused by humans, it can also be limited by humans. Methane lasts in the atmosphere for nine years and carbon dioxide for 300-1,000 years, so curbing those emissions now can lighten impacts on future generations.

A NASA study published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Earth’s Future shows how lowering future greenhouse gas emissions could have a significant impact on how much western droughts and wildfires worsen this century.

The study accounted for both mitigation (reducing emissions) and adaptation (strategies like rationing water usage and changing farming practices). The authors wrote that their results “demonstrate the value of climate change mitigation for reducing future drought severity and single-year extreme drought risk in the region.”

NASA western drought climate change emissions scenarios study
A NASA study published in September 2021 shows how lowering greenhouse gas emissions can reduce the severity of drought — and thus wildfires — in the Western U.S. in the late 2000s. (Graphic via NOAA/Anna Eshelman)

“There’s going to have to be some adaptation to a drier regional climate,” study co-author Kate Marvel, a research scientist at NASA and Columbia University, said in the agency’s announcement. “But the degree of that adaptation – how often these droughts happen, what happens to the drought risk – that’s basically under our control.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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