The eastern United States is engulfed in the dangerous plume of smoke from the Canadian wildfires

By | June 6, 2023

The smoky scenes and threat of fast-moving wildfires so common in California over the past few summers are now paying the eastern United States an unwelcome, unlikely, and toxic visit.

A thick shroud of smoke from the Canadian wildfires is wafting south over much of the Midwest, Ohio Valley, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, bringing milky white skies and dangerous air pollution to the country’s most populous corridor. The fine particles in the smoke, which are dangerous to breathe, have set off air quality alarms for tens of millions of people from Baltimore to Boston to Burlington, but measurements show that bad air also affects a wider area including Minneapolis and Washington, DC

Smoke from wildfires hits East Coast again. How bad is it for your health?

In some places, air quality measurements are the worst ever recorded.

By mid-morning Tuesday, New York City, Detroit and Toronto were ranked among the 15 cities with the worst air quality in the world.

The exceptionally unusual smoke episode could get worse as there is a greater threat of new wildfires in both the Great Lakes and the Northeast. The risk is critical in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, according to the National Weather Service, where dry storms, which contain little rain, could release pinpoint lightning that ignites new fires in the arid area.

It’s the first time forecasters can remember a dry thunderstorm threat happening in this area. Elizabeth Leitman, meteorologist at the Weather Services Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., tweeted: None of us can remember it ever happening, and we’re pretty confident this is the first time.

The Weather Service is also warning that wildfires could break out across Michigan, prompting red flag warnings there. Any fires that develop can quickly spiral out of control and become difficult to contain, the weather service has warned.

Where are the fires causing the smoke?

While there is a threat of fresh fires in parts of the northeastern United States, the source of much of the smoke billowing into the region is Quebec, Canada. Most have exploded in the last week. Across Canada, there are 416 active fires, 240 of which the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center lists as out of control.

The fires started under a well-expected heat dome, or high-pressure zone, which brought downhill air and hot, dry conditions which broke records for the time of year and location.

The low pressure swirling clockwise over Nova Scotia, meanwhile, is creating a conveyor belt of northerly winds that is pumping the smoke south over the Great Lakes, Northeast and mid-Atlantic.

Where is the smoke and where is it worse?

Satellite images around lunchtime Tuesday showed a huge shield of thick smoke billowing south from Lake Huron and Georgian Bay into the Carolinas. Southern Appalachians also saw smoke. The thickest ranged from Lake Erie all the way to New York City. A second zone of poor air quality existed between Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

That said, poor air quality reached as far west as Minnesota, according to AirNow.gov, and some hints of smoke were even flirting with the Georgia-Florida border.

Environmental agencies have also plastered air quality notices across a large swath of the Northeast, warning that sensitive people, including those with heart or lung disease, the elderly and young should limit strenuous activities and the amount of time active outdoors.

Code-orange air quality advisories, indicating that air quality is dangerous for vulnerable groups, cover Philadelphia, New York City, most of the Delmarva Peninsula, most of New York, all of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and Massachusetts and most of New Hampshire.

The worst air quality was concentrated in western New York, Quebec and Ontario on Tuesday morning, where code orange and purple conditions prevailed. They mean that air quality is dangerous for all populations.

Jase Bernhardt, professor of meteorology at Hofstra University, determined that the air quality index in Syracuse, New York was the worst since reliable records began in 1999.

Meanwhile, meteorologists at the Weather Service in Burlington, Vt., called the smoke situation unchartered territory, having never faced it before. [W]We are learning and adapting as the event unfolds, they wrote in a thread.

Since the end of the fires is not seen, the question of how long the smoke remains depends on the direction of the wind. Michigan, Indiana and Ohio should see improvements Tuesday night, but Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee and Carolina will likely see the smoke lingering.

Then, Wednesday through Thursday, an even worse round of wildfire smoke could be spreading south from Canada on the back of a cold front moving north to south. Pennsylvania, New York state, and the Mid-Atlantic, including major metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia, Newark, New York, Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond, are likely to see very poor air quality. Outdoor recreation would likely be dangerous.

From Friday to Saturday the winds will become more north-westerly. While this will not completely eliminate smoke, it will lead to a reduction in fine particulate concentrations. Visibility, sky conditions and air quality will improve slightly.

How unusual are fires?

Very unusual. Wildfires are common to some extent in Canada and the western United States during the summer, but outbreaks as widespread and numerous as these are virtually unheard of between late May and June. The amount of smoke pouring into the Northeast is therefore also exceptional.

More than 3.7 million acres are believed to have already been burned in Canada.

The Canadian Broadcast Corp. has released a sobering graph comparing the area burned so far this year to previous years:

While fires can be started in many different ways, how quickly they spread is proportional to how hot and dry the surroundings are. There is a strong link between the frequency and intensity of heat domes and human-caused climate change. A number of high-end thermal domes have already fueled wildfire outbreaks across Canada this year, and more appear to be in the offing.

Unprecedented Canadian wildfires intensified by record heat and climate change

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.


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