Wildfires are causing extreme PM in the western US

Wildfire smoke on 9/6/2017

Wildfire smoke covering the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia on September 6, 2017, from MODIS true color reflectance image. Red dots represent fire locations. Source: https://worldview.earthdata.nasa.gov.

New research by James Laing and Dan Jaffe shows how increases in wildfire smoke have impacted air quality in the western US. Their recent paper, published in the June 2019 issue of EM—The Magazine for Environmental Managers, describes the changing air quality picture for western states. Even though air quality in most of the US has improved in the last four decades, due in large part to the US Clean Air Act regulations, it is not improving in much of the western US. The reason for the decrease in air quality in western states is wildfire smoke.

In 2017 and 2018, wildfires caused the largest daily mean concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5; particles with diameter less than 2.5 μm) ever measured at monitoring sites in the US. Some of the extreme PM2.5 events of 2017–2018 include the following:

  • Seeley Lake, Montana, September 6, 2017—Highest daily PM2.5 on record (642 μg/m3). In August-September 2017, there were 35 days with PM2.5 > 150 μg/m3 and 18 with PM2.5 > 250 μg/m3.
  • Ventura, California, December 6, 2017—PM2.5 of 557 μg/m3, with a two-week average concentration of 165 μg/m3.
  • Seattle, Washington, August 21, 2018—Highest daily PM2.5 ever recorded in Seattle (110 μg/m3).
  • Medford, Oregon, September 6, 2017—Highest daily PM2.5 ever recorded in Medford (268 μg/m3), and eight days over 100 μg/m3 in 2017.

To put these measurements in context, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the daily PM2.5 standard at 35 μg/m3 (98th percentile < 35 μg/m3, averaged over 3 years). The EPA has also defined PM2.5 > 150 μg/m3 as very unhealthy and PM2.5 > 250 μg/m3 as hazardous. PM2.5 is such a health hazard because it can travel deep into the respiratory system due to its small size. Despite the gains in air quality in the US, about 30 million people live where the PM2.5 standard is not being met.

The estimated increase in the number and size of wildfires in the future raises issues for public officials and environmental managers. Complying with air quality standards and reducing human exposure to PM2.5 are causes for concern in the western US now and going forward.

Read the full paper here

Introducing our newest postdoc research associate

Dr. Praphulla Chandra BoggarapuIn November, Dr. Praphulla Chandra Boggarapu joined the Jaffe Group as a postdoc research associate. Praphulla grew up in Vizag, Andhra Pradesh, India, and is new to the Seattle area. He received his Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Mohali, India. His dissertation was titled “Measurements of reactive Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and their emissions in agricultural and urban atmospheric environments of the Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP)”

Praphulla’s research work in the Jaffe Group will focus on the impact of biomass burning. In particular, he will employ his GC-MS expertise to analyze wildfire emissions.

In his free time, he enjoys Veda chanting, yoga, and playing chess. We are excited to have Praphulla on the team and wish him a quick adjustment to our winter weather!

Do wildfires contribute to ozone events in an urban area?

Do wildfires contribute to ozone pr?

Wildfires emit primary pollutants, including particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx [=NO+NO2]), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and contribute to the formation of secondary pollutants, such as ozone (O3) and peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN). Wildfire emissions can enhance the production of O3 through the addition of NOx and VOCs. This paper investigated how wildfire emissions influenced the formation of ozone in an urban area.

In a recent Atmospheric Environment paper, Crystal McClure and Dan Jaffe investigated ozone (O3) enhancements during wildfire events in the Boise, Idaho, urban area over 2006–2017 and during a 2017 summer intensive campaign. They determined whether wildfire emissions are influencing the area by calculating a wildfire criterion based on NOAA’s Hazard Mapping System (HMS) smoke product and historically averaged fine particulate matter (diameter < 2.5 μm [PM2.5]) data. Using this criterion, they could categorize smoke vs. non-smoke events. They also used a Generalized Additive Model (GAM) to look at unusual sources of O3, such as wildfires. GAMs are useful in analyzing sources of O3 production by looking at meteorological and transport variables.

During the 2017 summer intensive campaign, they found that peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN), reactive nitrogen (NOy), and maximum daily 8 hour average (MDA8) O3 showed significant enhancements during smoke events. These findings show that wildfire-influenced O3 enhancements are highly variable in urban areas—O3 enhancements generally increase up to around 60 μg/m3 of PM2.5 and then decrease at very high smoke concentrations.

This research suggests that measurements of multiple tracers are essential in order to fully describe wildfire plumes in urban areas. McClure and Jaffe conclude, “While we identify some effects on O3 due to wildfire emissions in an urban area, the need for improved classification of smoke versus non-smoke influenced days will likely become more important throughout the western U.S. as wildfire frequency and intensity are predicted to increase through the end of the century.”

Read the paper here

Wildfires and poor air quality—Is this the new normal?

When smoke gets in your eyes this summer, your thoughts are probably turning to wildfires. Wildfires are on nearly everyone’s mind these days in the Pacific Northwest because of the smoky haze and poor air quality that is blanketing our area. This August is similar to August 2017, and so you might wonder—why is this happening and is it going to continue? Those are the questions many reporters have been asking Dan Jaffe in the last few weeks.

A new paper by group members Crystal McClure and Dan Jaffe published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science addresses these questions. This research highlights the dramatic gains in air quality that have taken place in the last few decades around the country except in the Northwest. In this region, the 98th percentile of daily fine particulate matter (PM2.5), or in other words the seven worst air quality days each year, is getting worse. Around the US, there have been improvements in air quality from reduced power plant, industry, and automobile emissions, but in the Northwest, those reductions are outweighed by the emissions from wildfires. Learn more about this paper.

The indications are that the wildfire season will continue to get worse in the Northwest. Forest management practices and meteorological factors such as increased spring and summer temperatures, earlier snowmelt, and dryer forest conditions contribute to the current situation. “We want to be careful not to put it all on climate change, but climate change is clearly a contributing factor, and particularly in the size of these fires,” Dan Jaffe told E&E News. “A fire that used to become a small fire has now become a massive conflagration.” We will see more high fire years and, in general, longer fire seasons and bigger fires.

The increase in wildfires and smoky conditions causes adverse health effects. Wildfires are a major source of fine particulate matter, which is small enough to be inhaled deeply into the lungs. The health impacts of breathing smoke can be significant, especially for children, the elderly, and people with pulmonary, cardiovascular, and other chronic conditions.

To listen and watch interviews with Dan Jaffe about wildfires and air quality, visit:

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To see all news reports and articles about our research, see our In the News page.

Background ozone and implications for air quality management

In a new paper published in Elementa, Dan Jaffe and his coauthors look at background ozone in the US and how it influences whether states can meet air quality standards. Background ozone (O3) includes “contributions from natural and foreign sources of O3 that cannot be controlled by precursor emissions reductions solely within the US.” Understanding background O3 is necessary for air quality management overall and for states and municipalities to meet national air quality standards.

They examined over 100 published studies in order to assess what is the current knowledge about the distribution, trends, and sources of background ozone in the continental US. They found that “noncontrollable O3 sources, such as stratospheric intrusions or precursors from wildfires, can make significant contributions to O3 on some days, but it is challenging to quantify accurately these contributions.” In order to address this shortcoming, they recommend a more coordinated and focused approach to understanding background ozone in the US: improvements in the monitoring network, large-scale field experiments, more accurate and consistent chemical transport models, and more detailed observations of wildfires.

Read the paper here