Air Quality: The What and What You Can Do
There has been no shortage of examples lately on why you might be thinking about air quality. The summer of 2023 saw a record number of air quality alerts being issued. And all information points to Minnesota continuing to be impacted by air quality concerns.
Interestingly, it is not simply that there have been more wildfires this summer. The summer of 2022 also had significant wildfires in Canada and the Western United States. But changing patterns of El Nino affect whether smoke reaches ground level in Minnesota. As Minnesota Pollution Control supervisory meteorologist Matthew Taraldsen explains in this interview, “There’s been longer days of poor air quality here because the Jetstream isn’t around to help with air flow, and the smoky air is sticking around for longer periods.”
On some of the worst smoky days in the Pine River area, an air quality alert was part of the local weather forecast I follow at weather.gov. Other days it seemed smoky, but there was not an air quality alert. Like the weather forecast itself, it seems that predicting what wildfire smoke will do has gotten more complicated because of multiple factors.
Taraldsen describes the air quality forecast process as much as an art as a science, explaining “Our team will discuss the weather models and create a forecast based off our interpretation. If we determine air quality levels will be high enough to warrant an air quality alert, we collaborate to write up a statement, draw up a map, and then the messaging goes out on our channels and to our distribution network. Alerts include information about when air quality fluctuates during the day so people can make informed decisions about when to be outside.”
As someone who walks or bikes outdoors every day, knowing about those fluctuations can make the difference between getting the stress-relieving exercise I crave or feeling stuck indoors. I find airnow.gov, the authoritative site for the U.S. Air Quality Index, is useful for finding out more details and forecasts about air quality as well as current local conditions. On several days predicted to be Unhealthy (Red), I used airnow.gov and found time when the air quality had improved to Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (Orange) or even Moderate (Yellow).
The Airnow.gov website also has details about what all those color ratings mean. Is it really such a big deal to be outside if I’m not part of a sensitive group? People have to decide for themselves. Several days I have weighed whether health risks associated with wildfire smoke (fine particles pollution) override the benefits of exercising outdoors.
This graphic from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency illustrates some of the hazards of poor air quality. Fine particles are the pollution most associated with wild fires.
Ground-level ozone (not to be confused with stratospheric ozone which protects living things from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation) may reach unhealthy levels on hot sunny days. Ground-level ozone, which results from chemical reactions when pollutants from cars, power plants, industrial plants and other sources combine in sunlight.
Be Part of the Solution
So besides following the air quality numbers, there are actions to take to keep air cleaner for yourself (and everyone else!)
Happy Dancing Turtle recommendations
Buy Local – Whether it’s food or other types of goods, the less internal combustion power (think airplanes, trucks, delivery vehicles–even your own car to go shopping) that’s required for you to get the goods means less negative environmental impact in the form of less ozone and air pollution created.
Transport Yourself Smartly
Use cars less (Sept 22 is Car Free Day)
If driving–car pool if possible. Also consider a transition to a high-miles-per-gallon hybrid or electric vehicle
Public transportation (if available where you live
On specific days when air quality is poor, you can act even more deliberately to not add to the poor air quality with these steps:
Airnow.gov has tips too: https://www.airnow.gov/education/what-you-can-do/
The Trend of Wildfires
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has the following comments on wildfires on their Air Quality Index page
In recent years, more wildfires are burning bigger and hotter in the western U.S. and central and western Canada, and are expected to become more frequent, with longer burning seasons. “Mega fires” like those that have been devastating California are expected to continue. Climate change, past fire-suppression practices, and populations expanding into wildfire regions are all playing a role in the increasing intensity and number of wildfires.
In Minnesota, higher AQIs in the summer are increasingly attributed to smoke from the Canadian wildfires and those in the northern Rockies. The MPCA continually monitors wildfire activity to track how they will affect Minnesota's air quality.
As a former librarian, I gauge whether something is a “thing” based on if there are new books on a topic. Living with wildfires is examined in-depth by Nick Mott and Justin Angle in This Is Wildfire: How to Protect Yourself, Your Home, and Your Community in the Age of Heat.
While I wish we weren’t contemplating a “fiery future” as the publicity for this book describes, I appreciate their hands-on what-you-can-do approach. When interviewed for public radio station WBUR in August this year, Mott and Angle offered these four tips:
Tips from Nick Mott and Justin Angle for preventing fires
Keep your gutters clean and roof free of debris
Do not store flammable materials under a deck or up against your house
Talk to your neighbors about fire safety and help secure their homes if possible
Keep tabs on city, town or council policy around wildfires
Air quality is the result of many factors. Weather conditions, which as we know seem to be growing more and more variable, play a key role in whether a pollutant like wildfire smoke will be a factor in my local area’s daily weather–or yours.
Because only metro areas with populations of 350,000 or more are required to report the daily air quality index, those of us living in smaller communities might not automatically get notified when air quality is a concern. Checking airnow.gov is one strategy for staying informed. The EnviroFlash program offers a free subscription service to notify you automatically, through a partnership of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and local/state air quality agencies.