Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer
So, this summer has been a doozy for those of us who live in the upper Midwest and Northeast.
The wildfires raging in Canadian forests have been generating massive amounts of smoke. As 2023 saw the start of an El Niño, wind patterns shifted to allow pressure systems to draw air masses from where those fires were occurring. There are two major variables at work here; the lack of precipitation in Canada over the winter creating dry conditions conducive to wildfires and the El Niño wind patterns drawing that smoke our way. Had either of these things not occurred, we would be enjoying our normal, smoke-free existence this summer.
We had three distinct events here this summer; early June saw smoke from wildfires in Quebec which created air quality that was the worst in the world in New York City; the wildfires in Quebec again caused horrible air quality, this time in Chicago and here in Northeast Ohio; and the latest issue was from wildfires in Alberta in the middle of July.
Historically, the air in Summit and Portage Counties is good. Using the air quality index (AQI) categories from www.airnow.gov, 95% of the days between 2000 and 2023 were in the good or moderate categories. There are those rare days where we have unhealthy air, but this summer alone we have had 14 days where the air was unhealthy for some or all of the population. To put that into context, we had 15 days where the air was unhealthy for the 12 year period of 2010-2022.
The situation we saw this summer, with the smoke infiltration from distant wildfires, is nothing new to the global scene. In 2006, agricultural burns on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo created a smoke blanket that affected Indonesia (2006 population of 238 million)1. This is an annual event to prepare the ground for planting on Sumatra. Between 2017 and 2021, large swaths of Siberia were on fire and smoke affected many people2. This year, we are seeing fires in places that don’t normally burn; the island of Rhodes in Greece, northeastern Canada, Scotland, Kazakhstan, and Chile. There are also fires raging across the western states in the USA as well, but unfortunately that is becoming a common experience.
A recent article3 reports that while the amount of rainfall that occurs has increased almost 5% in the last fifty years, the areas that receive that rain have shrunk by 2%. This means that the areas not getting rain are increasing and those that do get rain, get inundated. This alteration of rain reception can cause areas to enter drought status and possibly expand desert areas. The Sahara Desert grew over 10% in the last century4. In the USA the southwestern states could see this type of situation if current events continue.
According to the International Panel on Climate Change’s 6th Assessment Report, there are definable tipping points in the environment. A tipping point is defined as “a critical threshold beyond which a system reorganizes, often abruptly and/or irreversibly"5. We are approaching these tipping points and need to take action. While these smoke events we just experienced were horrible to live through, they have shown us just how bad things can get if we do nothing, and just how good we actually have it now.
Sam Rubens serves as an adjunct faculty member at Kent State College of Public Health in addition to the manager of Akron Regional Air Quality Management District, Summit County Public Health.