- Growing evidence that our climate is changing
- Puget Sound now has some of the worst air in the country
- Summer is coming and with it likely more wildfires
- You should prepare now
- Particulate matter is horrible for your lungs, and you don’t realize you damaged your lungs until it is too late
- N-95 masks help and don’t make you look like a dork, but don’t help everyone
- Consider creating a clean air space in your home
- This sucks
Climate is not the weather.
The weather is not climate.
Weather patterns are changing globally. When looked at as a whole, there is a growing body of evidence that these changes, which started hand-in-hand with the Industrial Revolution, are resulting in climate change.
The Arctic regions have seen one of the biggest shifts with extreme warm spells, shrinking glaciers, ice sheets, and seaside communities washing into the ocean. Permafrost frozen for more than 40,000 years is become less – permanent. In other regions, like the lower 48 of the United States, the changes are more subtle. Earlier springs, longer falls, increased rainfall when it rains, longer dry spells when there is drought. Here in Puget Sound, a growing addition to this change is smoke.
It is with a hardy and sarcastic, “congratulations,” Puget Sound now has some of the worst air in the United States. Those bluest skies I’ve ever seen as in the song have turned increasingly hazy, and over the past two summers, toxic. Most of this change is due to wildfires that have surrounded our region. Prevailing winds blow the smoke into the Puget Sound region where it gets trapped. The only thing that pushes it out is marine air off the coast, which then turns our skies gray with clouds and drops the temperature into the 60s and low 70s. Our spectacular Augusts replaced by days of 90 plus degrees with orange skies and the smell of burning forests or 65 degree days with drizzle and low gray clouds – but on those days we can breathe.
The reasons for the fires are more complex than weather events or a shift in climate. Poor forest management, increased human activity in forested areas, communities expanding into forests and grasslands, and an increase in “dry thunderstorms,” has conspired to generate more fires. The longer growing seasons, which are weather related, generate more fuel, while hotter summers dry out that fuel faster.
The ironic part is the smoke moves more people to motorized transit, which increases traffic, which creates more pollution, which makes it worse – but the pollution created by vehicles is not the particulate matter created by wildfires. The engineered congestion in Puget Sound creates lung congestion on our worst days.
Our declining air quality due to climate change and forest management isn’t just a Terra Firma Thursday issue; this is also a Weighty Matters issue. In other parts of the world, it isn’t just common, but it is socially acceptable to wear masks when sick or when pollution is severe. In the United States, this is met mostly with snickers.
The fine particulates that turn our skies orange in the summer are terrible for your lungs. The particulates accumulate, that is get trapped inside your lungs, and over time permanently damage your lung capacity. This decrease in capacity is insidious as it happens gradually and over the years. Of all the functions in our bodies, lungs go the longest before revealing to us there is a real issue – and then it is too late to reverse the damage.
As we start to approach summer, with another long-range forecast model of, “hotter and dryer than the norm,” now is the time to get prepared.
- Get some N-95 masks. When the smoke starts, they’ll become more difficult to find. You can buy them online from many websites including Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowes. Remember, N-95 masks only work when tightly fitted to the face. Small children and those with facial hair can’t use them. Additionally, N-95 masks are not designed to be worn for days on end. Which means you need to limit your overall exposure when the smoke is bad.
- Surgical masks don’t block fine particulates, they don’t work.
- Our smoky days typically go hand-in-hand with our hottest days. In 2018 we had several days that would have been record-shattering, 100 degrees plus, but the smoke kept our temperatures down 3 to 6 degrees in the high 90s. Ideally, on the worst days, you should keep your windows closed. Now is the time to consider a portable air conditioner for at least one room, to create a clean air space in your home.
- Along with a room with AC, having a box fan with a furnace filter taped to the “intake” side (the side that pulls the air) has been shown to dramatically reduce particulate matter in the air. If you can’t afford an AC, a $20 box fan and a $10 filter can significantly improve air quality in a single room. Ideally, if possible, you should do both.
- When you drive your car run your AC and run it in the “max” or “recirculation” mode. This recycles the air within your cabin. If your car doesn’t have working AC, you’ll need to wear an N-95 mask when driving.
- On the worst smoky days don’t do outdoor activity if you can. If you work outdoors, your employer should provide N-95 masks. This is vital on days where there is ash fall.
- Exercise should be done indoors in a climate controlled setting. If you have medical issues, to begin with, avoid exercise or better yet, talk to your doctor.
- Contact wearers should make sure now that their glasses prescription is up to snuff. On the worst days, you’ll want to rip your eyeballs out when you’re wearing contacts.
- Ash is very alkaline and damaging to car paint. Additionally, ash can create spiderweb scratches in auto finishes. On days with bad ashfall consider rinsing your car off with a hose. Smoke is generally not as bad during the morning hours as we get some marine air trying to push in. If it is down to your lungs or your car paint, you should choose the lungs.
- Welcome to the new normal.