Why Are Air Quality Risks Changing

A changing environment means higher air temperatures and changing humidity, which in turn impact wildfire activity and ozone formation.

Rising temperatures, shifting atmospheric moisture balance, and more wildfires are already counteracting decades of improvement in air quality.

Increasing wildfire activity creates more smoke

As the atmosphere warms, so do surface temperatures that affect the rate of evaporation in dense wilderness areas. Longer dry spells and lowered humidity also contribute to the drying out of vegetative fuel layers necessary for large wildfires. As soil and vegetation dry more quickly and more completely than in past seasons, wildfires are able to ignite more easily and get out of control more rapidly. This leads to more large fires that emit fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that negatively impacts air quality and threatens human health.

The ‘climate penalty’ of ground-level ozone

As the atmosphere warms, so do surface temperatures that affect the rate of evaporation in dense wilderness areas. Longer dry spells and lowered humidity also contribute to the drying out of vegetative fuel layers necessary for large wildfires. As soil and vegetation dry more quickly and more completely than in past seasons, wildfires are able to ignite more easily and get out of control more rapidly. This leads to more large fires that emit fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that negatively impacts air quality and threatens human health.

The impact of wildfire smoke on air quality

Wildfire smoke is a significant contributor to atmospheric PM2.5 in the United States and will continue to increase alongside growing wildfire risks. In particular, recent increases in wildfire smoke have undone decades of otherwise steady improvement in air quality from tighter emissions controls and other environmental policies. Wildfire smoke is a dominant cause of hazardous air quality alerts and prolonged exposure can cause significant health impacts to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Large wildfires burning for extended periods of time can also produce particle emissions that travel long distances, affecting air quality levels far away from the original fire sources.

The impact of ozone on air quality

Ozone is a key component of what is commonly referred to as ‘smog’, or a hazy form of air pollution with reduced visibility. Ozone forms as a result of chemical reactions of sunlight with nitrogen oxides and other volatile organic compounds in the atmosphere. These reactions are amplified when atmospheric conditions are sunny, hot, dry, and stagnant. Ozone is a major contributor to poor air quality days across the United States, especially in urban areas where the aforementioned conditions are prevalent. However, wind can transport ozone long distances, and other areas including coastlines and lakes also experience elevated ozone levels from lake-shore effects.

Additional factors increasing risk

Non-environmental factors like industrial, power generation, and transportation emissions can contribute to local particulate matter and ozone levels. Risk Factor assumes these levels will remain constant into the future to isolate the impact of climate change. Other EPA criteria pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, carbon monoxide, and lead can also contribute to air quality levels, but do not have strong environmental connections.

How does Air Factor™️ incorporate changing air quality risks?

The data on Air FactorTM considers how changing climate conditions and wildfire activity will affect ozone and fine particulate matter levels.

What can be done to address air quality risks?

Although air quality risk can never be completely eliminated, there are a number of steps homeowners can take to understand and reduce that risk.

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