More “mega fires” expected in future
With wildfires burning up much of the west in 2017, Minnesota’s air quality this year was dominated by smoke.
The MPCA has forecasted air quality conditions in the Twin Cities for years, calling the occasional alert when conditions made the Air Quality Index (AQI) climb into the unhealthy range. In the past, summertime alerts mostly revolved around ozone. Recent trends in large wildfires out west have shifted that focus to fine particles wafting in with the smoke. And this year was a doozy for smoke.
Though Minnesota’s air quality is generally good, we do get days when air quality can affect people’s health. On most days, the AQI across Minnesota is in the green (good) category, but occasionally, it climbs into the yellow (moderate) category, or even into the orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups) or red (unhealthy) categories.
Sensitive populations such as those with asthma, chronic lung disease, children and older adults are more likely to experience health effects during orange and red AQI levels. Unusually sensitive people can experience effects in the yellow range. Over the past few years, higher AQIs in the summer increasingly are attributed to wildfire smoke.
This year, smoke started showing up in the AQI in late July, with occasional episodes occurring into the fall. Smoke levels peaked in Minnesota from late August until mid-September, prompting the MPCA to issue several air quality alerts. Residents all across Minnesota could clearly smell the smoke and see the persistent high haze. Luckily, early snows smothered the fires in the Cascades and northern Rockies in late September, bringing the smoke season to a close in those areas.
Recently, MPCA meteorologists determined that smoke contributed to yellow AQIs on 13 days in the Twin Cities last year, and up to 11 days in parts of Greater Minnesota. Minnesota had no orange days (AQI 100 or above) due to smoke, but Marshall, Minn. came close with a 95 on September 1. There were many more days where smoke from afar hung in our skies but didn’t come down to the surface — creating picturesque sunsets but letting us all breathe easier.
Wildfires are not new, but in recent years they’re burning bigger and hotter across the western U.S. and central and western Canada. Climate change plays a part, and so do past practices of fire suppression and populations expanding into wildfire regions. “Mega fires,” like those devastating California, are expected to continue well into the future.
While Minnesota largely hasn’t experienced these big fires (yet), we are adapting to the new reality of smokier skies. Earlier this year, the MPCA expanded and improved our air quality forecasting program, increasing the number of forecast locations from two (Twin Cities and Rochester) to 17 across the state. We’re now working closely with the National Weather Service, Minnesota Department of Health, and MnDOT to communicate alerts and related health information more effectively, as well increasing our outreach via news and social media.
With no end in sight to our smokier summers, you’ll want to stay “air aware” by visiting MPCA’s AQI webpage and downloading the new Minnesota Air mobile app for Apple, Android or Windows, or by signing up for email forecasts and alerts.