Wildfires have led to polluted air

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Last week, the American Lung Association released its “State of the Air” report, showing that air pollution in the United States continues to get worse. The report covered the years from 2015 to 2017 and the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area ranked 15th in the category for short-term particle pollution.

Many scientists say that climate change is the primary reason for the increasing bad air quality across the country. Despite the reason, we have seen longer and hotter weather conditions during the summer months, increased wildfires and more car exhaust in recent years.

The region with the highest pollution is California. Much of the population in the Golden State lives in valleys that are surrounded by mountains. With extended periods of dryness and stagnant air, the pollution builds up and settles into the valley regions that can often lead to “hazardous” air.

The “State of the Air” report was broken down into 3 categories. It included ozone, year-round particle pollution and short-term particle pollution. The No. 1 region for ozone pollution was the Los Angeles and Long Beach area of California. Visalia, Bakersfield, Fresno, Sacramento, San Diego finished in the top six. The seventh highest was the Phoenix and Mesa, Ariz., area, as they are also located in a valley.

Ozone is a molecule made up of three oxygen atoms. It is used as deodorizing agents, a bleach and sterilization agents for air and drinking water. In the Earth’s upper atmosphere, known as the stratosphere, there is a layer of ozone that protects us from ultraviolet light. An increase in ultraviolet light can lead to cases of skin cancer.

Near the surface, ozone is created by emissions for automobiles and factories. With long periods of stagnant conditions, ozone often builds up and can lead to a number of health issues, such as coughing, throat irritation and congestion. It can also reduce lung function and long exposure can scar lung tissue.

Particle pollution, which is also called particulate matter, is a mixture of liquid droplets and solids in the air. There are coarse dust particles and fine particles produced by combustion, forest fires, agricultural burning and other industrial processes.

The Fresno region of California was number one for year-round particle pollution. Bakersfield, Calif., was second. Perhaps a surprise to many, Fairbanks, Alaska, was third. Much of its pollution not only extends from emissions from cars, but terrible wildfire seasons in recent years. Visalia and the Los Angeles region finished number four and five.

For short-term particle pollution, most of the major California cities were in the top 7. They included Bakersfield, Fresno, San Jose and San Francisco. Missoula, Mont., was number 5 and Yakima, Wash., was sixth. The Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area were tied with Sacramento, Calif., at number 15.

Here in the Inland Northwest, we have averaged over 250 days with very good air quality over the last 5 years. However, we do get long stretches with dry and stagnant conditions that increase the levels of bad air, but the smoke from the large wildfires have been the primary reason for poor air quality. In 2017, air quality in the region was not only the worst in the country on that date, but perhaps the worst in history here in Coeur d’Alene. On Labor Day, Sept. 4, air quality levels hit an unbelievable 303, which in in the “hazardous” category.

With the above-normal moisture totals across the Northwest from February through early April, we’ll likely have more fuel for wildfires this season. As I mentioned several weeks ago, according to the National Interagency Fire Center Forecast, much of Idaho should have a relatively “normal” fire season through July. However, the chances for wildfires are high by June across southern Arizona, much of the western portions of California, northwestern Oregon, western and the northeastern portion of Washington, which could lead to more bad air quality days this summer.

In terms of our local weather, we did see some snowflakes Saturday morning that totaled 0.2 inches at Cliff’s station in northwestern Coeur d’Alene. That pushes our seasonal total to 96.6 inches, compared to the normal of 69.8 inches. Snowfall should be over for the 2018-19 season in the lower elevations. There may be a few storms that will produce some additional snow in the higher mountains over the next month.

By the way, seasonal snowfall totals in the mountains were very good this year. At the Silver Mountain Resort, it was reported that 327 inches of snow fell for the season. At Lookout Pass, approximately 460 inches of snow was gauged.

With dry weather expected for the rest of April, our precipitation total for the month will end up at 3.07 inches, which was well above the normal of 1.77 inches. Despite the healthy total, most of the moisture came within the first 8 days of the month. For May, moisture totals should be near normal, but conditions are looking drier and warmer in the late spring and early summer.

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Contact Randy Mann at randy@longrangeweather.com

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