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Expect a hot, smoky summer in much of America. Here’s why you’d better get used to it

by Madison Thomas
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Wildfires

Get ready for an intense and sweltering summer in many parts of America. The persistent presence of dangerous smoke from Canadian wildfires, combined with a lethal heat wave sweeping across the southern regions, offers only brief respites from the heat and humidity. Unfortunately, forecasters predict that the smoke will return to the Midwest and East, as both the uncontrollable Canadian wildfires and the stagnant weather pattern responsible for this unfortunate combination show no signs of relenting in the next week or even longer. Meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Prediction Center express concern about the unfavorable conditions, stating that as long as the fires continue to burn, smoke will remain an issue that we have to contend with.

The weather pattern responsible for this situation has created abnormally hot and dry conditions in Canada, resulting in record-breaking wildfires. It has also established a setup where low-pressure systems bring relief in the form of smoky air from the north to some areas and sweltering air from the south to others. Consequently, people have to choose between enduring smoke or extreme heat. Greg Carbin, the forecast operations chief at the prediction center, aptly remarks, “Pick your poison.” He adds that the conditions are far from ideal and emphasizes that the problem persists as long as the fires continue to burn.

On Wednesday, a low-pressure system hovered over New England, causing winds to carry smoky air from the north to areas west of it, including Chicago and the Midwest. Meanwhile, areas east of the low pressure experienced hot winds from the south. As the low-pressure system moves on and another one traverses the central Great Plains and Lake Superior, the Midwest receives temporary relief from the smoke. However, once the low-pressure system passes, the smoke returns. Liz Moyer, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Chicago, describes the situation as a revolving carousel of air circulating around the Midwest, periodically bringing smoke directly to various cities. The only relief, she explains, is when the fires eventually subside or when the weather pattern changes.

This persistent weather pattern is highly unusual, according to NOAA’s Carbin, who had to examine records dating back to 1980 to find a remotely similar occurrence. He expresses astonishment at its persistence. While it remains uncertain if human-caused climate change contributes to the stuck weather pattern, Carbin and Canadian fire scientist Mike Flannigan highlight a clear climate signal in the Canadian wildfires. They believe that the fires will continue unabated, as the forecast does not indicate any potential changes.

Currently, fires are burning in nearly every province of Canada, covering a record-breaking area of 30,000 square miles (80,000 square kilometers) – roughly the size of South Carolina – according to the Canadian government. It is worth noting that the fire season in Canada typically ramps up in July, making the current situation even more extraordinary. Flannigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, attributes the increased intensity of fires to hotter and drier air caused by climate change. Warmer temperatures draw moisture out of plants, making them more susceptible to catching fire and burning more fiercely.

Where there is fire, there is smoke. Both the extreme heat and smoky conditions impose stress on the body and pose potential health challenges, according to Ed Avol, a professor emeritus at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. Even when the sky appears clear, wildfire smoke can contain harmful pollutants such as ozone, which can have adverse effects on human health. Additionally, there are air chemistry changes downwind of wildfire smoke that may have less understood impacts on the body.

Considering that it is still only June, the seasonal forecast for the rest of the summer in Canada predicts continued hot and mostly dry conditions, which are unfavorable for extinguishing fires. Flannigan describes the year as “crazy” and remains uncertain about how it will unfold.

(Note: The original text has been heavily paraphrased and modified to provide a rewritten version.)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Wildfires

Q: Why is there persistent smoke in much of America?

A: The persistent smoke in much of America is primarily caused by the ongoing wildfires in Canada. The combination of uncontrollable fires and a stuck weather pattern is responsible for the prolonged presence of smoke across the affected regions.

Q: How are the Canadian wildfires impacting the weather in America?

A: The Canadian wildfires are affecting the weather in America by creating abnormally hot and dry conditions, which contribute to the spread and intensity of the fires. The weather pattern associated with these fires brings smoky air from the north and hot air from the south, leading to a combination of smoke and extreme heat in different areas.

Q: Is this weather pattern unusual?

A: Yes, the current weather pattern is considered highly unusual. Meteorologists had to look back several decades to find a remotely similar occurrence. The persistence of the weather pattern is noteworthy and has raised concerns among experts.

Q: Are the Canadian wildfires expected to subside soon?

A: Unfortunately, there is no indication that the Canadian wildfires will die down in the near future. The forecast does not suggest any significant changes that would bring relief from the fires or the associated smoke.

Q: Are there health risks associated with the smoke and extreme heat?

A: Yes, both the smoke and extreme heat pose health risks. The smoke contains harmful pollutants, including ozone, which can be detrimental to respiratory health. The combination of high temperatures and humidity can also place stress on the body and pose challenges to human health.

Q: Is climate change a contributing factor to the Canadian wildfires and the weather pattern?

A: While it is too soon to definitively attribute the current situation to climate change, scientists have identified a clear climate signal in the Canadian wildfires. Warmer temperatures resulting from climate change can create drier conditions, making vegetation more prone to catching fire and exacerbating wildfire risks.

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