iSeeChange: Hazy Days

Aug 27, 2015

Something’s in the air.  Ridgway resident Sue Husch noticed last week the same thing a lot of people on the Western Slope noticed: smoke.

“The wind has come up a little bit and cleared things out quite a bit,” said Sue, “but that morning, the San Juans had no definition at all.  None.  It was solid smoke and particulate.”

Even if she hadn’t looked out to the horizon, she would have been alerted to the haze. 

“We put in some new smoke detectors over the past year.  We the back windows open, and I opened the front door to let the dog out, and when I came back in, so much smoke came in with me that the lower smoke detector launched,” she said.

Seeing all the smoke around, breathing it in like everyone else, it made her wonder.

Credit The U.S. Army via Flickr

“I would like to know what those particulates are made out of.  I don’t think it was just ‘smoke’, I’d like to know what else is there.  What all is in there, what is that stuff?”

I took her question to Dr. Allen Robinson.

“What’s in smoke?  There’s lots of particles (little microscopic particles suspended in air) and lots of gaseous pollutants,” he said.

Robinson works at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  He’s studied wildfire smoke and its contents. 

“From a chemical perspective, it’s mainly made out of a complex mixture of organic compounds, a lot of which we don’t even know what their identity is,” he said.  “Some of them we do know, and some of them we know are hazardous to our health: things like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.”

Without getting into what a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon is, smoke is not good to breathe in. 

“There’s strong associations between a variety of health impacts, everything from premature mortality to asthma and things like that, associated with breathing in fine particles.
“Another thing with smoke is that a lot of studies have looked at chronic exposures, which are exposures over a long period of time.  These episodes associated with wildfires are typically much shorter in duration, but can have very, very high pollutant concentrations,” he said.

That’s why the state sent out a warning last week, warning people not exert themselves outside if they’re older adults, people with heart or lung diseases, or children. 

That cocktail of particles and gasses also has an interesting effect on climate change.

“Smoke has a couple of different competeing effects,” says Robinson, “particles can interact with radiation.  That’s what we’re worried about with the greenhouse effect.  We’ve got radiation that’s being emmited by the earth back into space, trying to cool the planet.  Some of what’s in those particles is what’s called black carbon and it will abosorb that outgoing long-wave radiation.  But the lifetime of black carbon in the atmosphere is very short, a week or so.  That’s different that CO2, which lasts in the atmosphere for centuries or thousands of years, which is why CO2 is such a concern. 

“What offsets that is that these particles also scatter light back to space.  It’s this competition between absorbing the outgoing radiation with scattering the incoming,” he said.
That back and forth, that balance of keeping in heat and reflecting heat back isn’t terrible well understood.  Robinson says that it leans towards warming, but each fire is different. 

Current models predict the West will become warmer and drier, a prime scenario for more wildfires, and that could mean more pollution.

If you’ve noticed things out in the environment, if you have questions about what’ you’re seeing, let us know at iseechange.org.