Climate change is erasing previous air quality gains — and fires are to blame

A new report shows that U.S. air quality is expected to regress over the next few decades, returning to mid-2000s levels due to climate change. The report comes with an online tool for users to zoom in. It paints an evolving picture for regulators, who must adapt to evolving threats.

“Air quality really highlights how individuals feel about climate change.”

A hotter planet creates conditions for more wildfire smoke and intensifies the chemical reactions that cause smoke. This means the game is changing for how to prevent pollution in the future. After decades of success in controlling pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes, climate change is erasing some of those gains.

“Air quality really highlights how individuals feel about climate change,” said Jeremy Porter, lead author of the report released by the nonprofit research group First Street Foundation. “Really severe floods and truly severe wildfires are relatively rare, [although] “We’re seeing them more and more frequently. But something like poor air quality, it doesn’t just affect the low-rise houses on the street, it affects everyone in the community,” Porter said.First Street previously released a research report Online tools for evaluation flood, fireand hot Risk to Personal Property.

While anthropogenic emissions decrease, climate impacts such as concentrations of fine particle pollution will worsen.
Chart: First Street, EPA: PM2.5 per hour non-FRM/FEM mass

The organization’s latest research shows that about 10% of properties in the United States (about 14.3 million properties) have had to endure for a week or more with air quality considered “unhealthy” due to fine particle pollution, also known as soot. Some of the properties were in worse shape, experiencing unhealthy air quality for two weeks straight.

To figure that out, First Street reviewed data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Quality Sensor Network. Porter and his colleagues were then able to combine this data with First Street’s existing peer-reviewed fire and heat models to make predictions about the future.

First Street simulated air quality 30 years from now, the life of a typical mortgage. On the current trajectory, air quality in 2054 could return to 2004 levels of badness, according to First Street, “erasing 20 years of air quality and an estimated 1.7 million properties that will face damage from soot and smog each year.” The number of days with poor air quality of 10 or more days will increase by 15% compared with the current number.

The report said the rising trend reflected a “climate penalty”. Smog, or in technical terms, ground-level ozone, is produced through a photochemical reaction in which nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react with each other in sunlight. Smog can be worse on hot, sunny days.Climate change is causing heat wave longer and more intenseand pollution is part of the problem.

Hot, dry conditions also tend to cause land to burn. The report found that fires are the main cause of worsening air quality caused by climate change. This is particularly severe in the western United States, where the number of days with poor air quality increased by 477% between 2000 and 2021.

The number is based on the EPA’s color-coded Air Quality Index and counts the number of days when the index value is considered at least “unhealthy for sensitive groups” — orange days. A red sky is “unhealthy” and a purple sky is “very unhealthy”. The researchers found that average maximum values ​​have risen from orange to red since 2000.

Average maximum values ​​of fine particle pollution between 2000 and 2001.
Graphic: First Street, EPA: PM2.5 per hour non-FRM/FEM mass

This often explains peak levels of particulate matter pollution during certain events such as wildfires. For example, the health risks posed by a sudden, brief burst of pollution are different from the health risks posed by ongoing exposure to pollution from living next to a busy highway. Health risks include problems related to respiratory and cardiovascular disease that increase with long-term exposure.

“If the rest of the year has more fires but less pollution, you’ll see an increase in these acute effects, but they’ll be offset by a decrease in the chronic effects,” said Drew Shindell, professor of geosciences. explain. Duke University studies climate change and air quality but was not involved in the First Street report.

Schindel also noted that there are still opportunities to change the trajectory laid out in the report. Just as the Clean Air Act led to dramatic improvements in air quality from the 1970s to the 1990s, the United States now has an opportunity to take action. Both Schindel and Porter said that for policymakers, things have to be different now than they were in the past.

“The job of people like air quality regulators is changing because in the past your focus was 100 percent on emissions from human activity, so you were worried about power plants, industry and motor vehicles,” Schindel said. “We’re doing a good job controlling many of them. But we’re not doing enough controlling greenhouse gases.”

In other words, to control soot and smog, regulators must also prioritize cutting other pollutants — the carbon dioxide and methane emissions that contribute to climate change. They must also consider issues such as forest management to better control wildfires. All of this connects the local impacts of air pollution to the wider world, in addition to concerns about the pollutants that neighbors may emit.Last year, wildfires in Canada sent plumes of smoke into the northeastern United States, causing New York City briefly retains title for worst air quality in the world.

To view historical data and forecasts of future air quality in your area, you can check out First Street’s online tool: RiskFactor.comIt uses First Street’s peer-reviewed models to predict floods, fires, heat and now air quality risks. It will show how a property ranks compared to other properties in the United States in terms of local air quality, which pollution sources are nearby, and how many days the area is expected to have poor air quality now and in the future.

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