Story at a glance

  • A newly published study reveals carbon particulate emissions from wildfires are increasing and have adverse health effects.
  • Carbon emissions from wildfires are likely linked to climate change.

A new study estimates that carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by U.S. wildfires accounts for about half of harmful pollution released in the Western U.S., in addition to composing 25 percent of total carbon air pollution throughout the entire country.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences scientific journal, the study used a statistical model that links satellite-sourced data for fires and smoke emissions to pollution monitoring stations in a bid to gauge how wildfire activity might affect air pollution-related mortality outcomes of nearby residents.

The results indicate that wildfires have contributed substantial amounts of harmful particulate matter since the mid 2000s, and the total volume of emissions only appears to be increasing. 

The long-distance transport of smoke emitted from wildfires — seen in 2020 when Kansas citizens witnessed smoke that traveled all the way from California’s deadly fires — is increasing in other states as fires grow more intense. 


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Researchers acknowledge that climate change is a likely source for more intense and destructive wildfires, which leads to more particulate matter emissions. 

“A warming climate is responsible for roughly half of the increase in burned area in the United States, and future climate change could lead to up to an additional doubling of wildfire-related particulate emissions in fire-prone areas or a many-fold increase in burned area,” the authors write.

Looking at increased air pollution through a socioeconomic lens, the increases in carbon particulate matter emissions was also found to impact communities of color more, a fact that contributes to the intersection of racial and environmental justice initiatives.

The study adds here that particle exposure can also vary based on individual discrepancies, including time spent outdoors, and characteristics of home and other sheltered environments.

For instance, older homes and structures, as well as lower income households, showed higher than average infiltration of outdoor pollutants like carbon particulate matter, which then negatively affects the health of the resident.

Using this data, the report authors discuss policy-level solutions, including legislation and wildfire mitigation strategies to reduce smoke-related health problems. 

COVID-19 was also addressed in the study, with the authors noting that although concrete data is lacking, there is an existing relationship between air pollution and severe viral respiratory illnesses, leading the authors to suggest carbon particulate matter further exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is currently unknown but probable that the historic fire season, and consequent smoke impacts, has also worsened COVID-related health outcomes,” the authors state, “as early evidence suggests that exposure to air pollution increases both COVID cases and deaths in the United States.”

Adverse human health and environmental effects of wildfire-induced carbon emissions have been previously studied and yielded similar results. Leading experts in the field say that better wildfire containment should be at the forefront of pollution reduction and climate change agendas.

“We have been making tremendous progress on improving pollution in this country, but at the same time we have this other part of the puzzle that has not been under control,” said Dan Jaffe, a wildfire pollution expert at the University of Washington, to reporters. “We’re now at the point where we have to think about how to manage the planet a whole lot more carefully than we’ve done.”


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Published on Jan 12, 2021