Smoke and haze moves in and covers Old Country Road...

Smoke and haze moves in and covers Old Country Road and the area, June 7, 2023 in Carle Place. Credit: Howard Schnapp

For several days this week, New Yorkers awoke to hazardous haze and smoke enveloping the region, shrouding the area in an eerie orange hue that created "crisis" air-quality levels not seen in more than half a century.

Saturday evening, except for the East End, Long Island still had "moderate" ozone and particulate moderate air pollution, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

But while the thickest smoke from out-of-control Canadian wildfires has mostly moved on, experts fear the accelerating pace of climate change could create near-perfect conditions for extreme fire events in the future.

Although many wildfires naturally occur, often sparked by lightning, the factors causing them to spread more rapidly, and with catastrophic intensity, are linked to a warming of the planet, according to Dr. Mahdieh Danesh Yazdi, an air pollution expert and environmental epidemiologist at Stony Brook University.

What to know

  • New York could experience more poor air quality events from wildfires, similar to what occurred this week as smoke drifted south from the Canadian wildfires, according to meteorologists and climate change experts.
  • Wildfires are becoming more frequent and damaging, in part due to the planet's warming temperatures and inconsistent precipitation patterns, which create drought-like conditions, experts contend.
  • While wildfires have become a fixture on the west coast, additional research is needed to determine if they will become more prevalent on the East Coast and in eastern Canada.

Such factors include warmer and drier temperatures that lead to longer growing seasons, which in turn creates more fuel to burn, and inconsistent precipitation patterns that create drought-like conditions, such as those experienced 300 miles away in Quebec.

"It's not a unique, isolated incident, but how frequently we are going to see these kinds of air pollution and air quality events is less certain," Danesh Yazdi said. "It's harder to predict, but the fact that these events are going to happen again is actually likely."

Research needed on wildfires in East

Experts note that conditions of extreme atmospheric dryness and drought are not unusual for the continental United States, pointing to the increased frequency of wildfires on the West Coast.

But more research is needed to determine if wildfires will become more prevalent on the East Coast and in eastern Canada, said Jase Bernhardt, a meteorologist who teaches geology, environment and sustainability at Hofstra University. 

"It seems like an increase in wildfires is something we're going to have to get used to," said Bernhardt, who runs Hofstra's Sustainability Studies program. "In a place like New York, we're not going to see this every month … but there's a tenuous connection that these may start to happen more frequently. The jury is still out."

Canada is battling its worst wildfire season in history, with Quebec alone facing more than 160 blazes. The province is experiencing record heat and drought.

Meanwhile, a series of naturally occurring meteorological events also contributed to this week's extended poor air quality.

A low-pressure system over eastern New England brought winds from the north directly over the tristate region. The winds carrying that northern smoke then became trapped in an area of high pressure that remained stationary for an extended period, known as an omega block, named for the way the jet stream bends to create a shape resembling the Greek letter omega.

A man runs in front of the sun rising over...

A man runs in front of the sun rising over the lower Manhattan skyline in Jersey City, N.J.,  June 8, 2023. Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

The resulting poor air quality had serious health implications, such as eye, nose and throat irritation and decreased lung and heart function, particularly for at-risk groups, including young children, the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions.

Worst Air Quality Index levels in decades

The federal Air Quality Index, which considers the amount of particle pollution, ground-level ozone and toxic gases in the air, topped 400 in Brooklyn and Queens on Wednesday, the highest levels since at least the 1960s, city officials said. The AQI nearly hit 200 in parts of Long Island on Wednesday before remaining at "unhealthy" levels exceeding 150 on Thursday.

Healthy levels are 50 and below, while the air quality in some parts of California during the peak of its 2020 wildfire season was in the mid-200s.

On Saturday, blue skies returned to Long Island as the thickest wildfire smoke moved over the Atlantic and the AQI dropped below 50. Later in the day, much of the Island was in the “moderate” category but far better than last week’s numbers.

National Weather Service meteorologist Dominic Ramunni said winds from the south could bring some smoke and haze back to Long Island on Sunday.

“This may be the first time we’ve experienced something like this on this magnitude. Let’s be clear, it’s not the last,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said at a news briefing Wednesday. “Climate change is accelerating these conditions. We must continue to draw down emissions, improve air quality and build resiliency.”

Wildfire seasons getting longer

Global trends show that wildfire seasons are getting longer, occurring at a more frequent pace and with greater damage, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

"Climate change is playing an increasing role in determining wildfire regimes alongside human activity, with future climate variability expected to enhance the risk and severity of wildfires," IPCC researchers wrote in a 2022 report.

States such as California have become accustomed to the risks of wildfire smoke, and the images — all too familiar now to most New Yorkers — of an orange-tinted sky that seems ripped out of an apocalyptic thriller.

“I think this is the terrifying realization that this is what climate change will make all of our lives look like,” said University of California Berkeley Professor Joshua Apte, an air quality expert. 

Francesca Hopkins, a UC Riverside professor of climate change and sustainability, said if Canadian wildfires persist in years to come, the Northeast's air quality, at times, could resemble conditions that have affected parts of California during the peak of past wildfire seasons.

In this May 29, 2023, aerial image courtesy of the...

In this May 29, 2023, aerial image courtesy of the Nova Scotia Government in Canada, a helicopter drops water on the Tantallon wildfire, west of Halifax. Credit: Nova Scotia Government/AFP via G/Nova Scotia Government/AFP via Getty Images

“The climate has warmed, forests have dried and the soil has become more dry," Hopkins said. "There are places that haven’t experienced that type of climate before and that’s what makes a forest prone to burning. Warmer temperatures lead to a higher likelihood of wildfires breaking out … It’s not too surprising severe fires are increasing as the climate is warming.” 

Even as state and federal lawmakers consider legislation and policies to increase funding, resources, training and research to combat wildfires, climate change experts said the risk is not going away anytime soon.

"In the long term, we should, both on a public and on a policy level, start to plan for these kinds of events to become more normal," Danesh Yazdi said. " … It does not seem that the overall picture is going to be changing anytime soon."

With John Asbury, Tara Smith and Matthew Chayes


 


 

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