According to IQAir’s World Air Quality Index, Chicago has been ranked as the worst for air quality worldwide due to the hovering smoke from Canada. A fight against wildfires in Canada, hindered by drought, has persisted for weeks and consequently has caused dangerous air conditions in Chicago and nearby surrounding areas.
Dubai, Jakarta, Doha, Indonesia, and Minneapolis also made the list for worst air quality, where Minneapolis is experiencing hazy, dangerous air from the north due to the effects of climate change. Experts are predicting that the occurrence of wildfires will worsen as a result of rising temperatures and droughts.
The air quality index in Chicago on Tuesday morning was classified as “unhealthy” with a score of 172, a reading which looks to remain consistent for the day. The U.S.-based Environmental Protection Agency also provides an air quality index to monitor the severity of pollution in the country. The index ranges from 0 to 500 and scores higher than 100 are generally considered unsafe, with levels ranging from 101 to 300 being explicitly categorized as unhealthy. Individuals with underlying health conditions, pregnant people, children, and the elderly are believed to be more sensitive to symptoms at lower levels.
Breathing in an AQI of 150 for longer than a few minutes can be equivalent to smoking around seven cigarettes a day. This goes against the misconception that filtered cigarettes have an equivalent impact on one’s lungs to breathing in smoke from wildfires.
Read: ‘Like unfiltered cigarettes’: Why is wildfire smoke so dangerous for the lungs?
Smoky Skies in Chicago: Understanding the Impact of Wildfires on Air Quality
Over the past 30 days, the air quality in Chicago has been affected by Canadian smoke and other pollutants that have built up due to lake breezes. When cool air is brought in, it creates a meteorological condition known as a temperature inversion, where instead of temperatures falling and air circulating vertically, temps hold steady or even rise, trapping smoke and pollutants close to the ground. This has led to unhealthful air quality in the area.
While wildfires are essential for maintaining a healthy ecosystem by clearing dead vegetation, keeping pests at bay, and providing the conditions for new growth and habitats, the scope of these wildfires is increasing and impacting air quality nationwide.
During these times, low-income people and communities of color suffer the most from declining air quality. Therefore, it’s essential to understand the impact of wildfires on air quality to take preventive measures before it’s too late.
If you’re shopping for an air purifier, there are five things to know before you buy one. You can also visit the EPA’s Air Now site to check the latest readings around the country or examine longer-term air quality by selecting a region.
Impact of Human Activity on Wildfires
Wildfires have become a major concern globally, with manmade activity such as forestry budget cuts, human negligence, and climate change disrupting the natural fire ecology in many regions. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, although some wildfires occur naturally, mostly sparked by lightning strikes and other natural causes, the vast majority of wildfires can’t be considered “natural.” The center’s data shows that between 2018 and 2022, a period that featured record fires in California and the Pacific Northwest, 89% of wildfires were the result of human activity.
As the impact of drought and extreme heat continues to hit, this year’s wildfire season has turned out to be the worst on record in Canada. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reports that about 29,000 square miles have burned across eastern and western Canada. That’s greater than the combined area burned in 2016, 2019, 2020 and 2022.
The impact of Canadian smoke is even affecting Europe. Canada’s blazes have released a record 160 million metric tons of carbon, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service. Copernicus senior scientist Mark Parrington notes, “The difference is eastern Canada fires driving this growth in the emissions more than just western Canada.” The carbon emissions the latest fires have released is roughly equivalent to Indonesia’s annual CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.
Along with its hazardous smoke, the loss of forests is also hugely costly. Forests act as a critical sink for planet-warming carbon. It’s estimated that Canada’s northern boreal forest stores more than 200 billion metric tons of carbon, which is equivalent to several decades worth of global carbon emissions.