At a Glance
- Warming global temperatures are making wildfires more destructive.
- Smoke from those blazes is making up an increasing share of a dangerous air pollution.
- The study said increased forest management to prevent fires could have big health benefits.
Smoke from wildfires has made up as much as half of small particle air pollution in the western United States in recent years and as much as a quarter in other parts of the country, according to a new study.
The study looked at pollution, known as PM2.5 pollution, caused by particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers that can enter a person's lungs and cause severe health problems.
It used a statistical model that related satellite images of wildfire smoke to information from pollution monitoring stations from 2006 to 2008 and from 2016 to 2018.
"The contribution of wildfire smoke to PM2.5 concentrations in the U.S. has grown substantially since the mid-2000s," according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The increases are concentrated in the western U.S., but they can also be seen in other regions because smoke from large fires can be carried long distances, said the study performed by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego. A decade ago, wildfire smoke made up less than 20% of PM2.5 concentrations in the West, the study said.
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Climate change has made wildfires more frequent and more destructive.
"From a climate perspective, wildfires should be the first things on our minds for many of us in the U.S.," Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth system science at Stanford and lead author of the study, told the Associated Press.
"Most people do not see sea-level rise. Most people do not ever see hurricanes. Many, many people will see wildfire smoke from climate change," he said.
Burke and the team used their model to show that more prescribed burns in forests to prevent fires could have large health benefits.
Dan Jaffe, a wildfire pollution expert at the University of Washington, told the AP the questions raised about how to better manage forests are important ones.
"We have been making tremendous progress on improving pollution in this country, but at the same time we have this other part of the puzzle that has not been under control," Jaffe said. "We’re now at the point where we have to think about how to manage the planet a whole lot more carefully than we’ve done."
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