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Wildfire smoke plumes are growing taller and sending pollutants farther away, researchers find

Moose Fire plume in Idaho July 2022.
Sheena Waters
InciWeb -Incident Information System
Moose Fire plume in Idaho July 2022.

News brief

Smoke plumes from wildfires are reaching higher in the sky throughout the West, and their impacts on air quality are spreading farther, according to a new study out of the University of Utah.

The researchers examined 17 years of data and found that wildfire plume heights increased more than 300 feet every year in mountain ranges in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, while plumes in the Sierra Nevada region along the California-Nevada border grew about 750 feet per year.

Kai Wilmot is a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Utah's Department of Atmospheric Sciences and lead author of the paper, which was published inScientific Reports in July.

“Since we’re seeing trends towards higher plumes, it would then suggest that areas farther away from those fires should be more concerned about air quality impacts as a result of that fire,” Wilmot said.

Wildfire smoke can impede breathing and cause chest pain, and children, pregnant women, and firefighters, as well as people with conditions like asthma and heart disease, are especially vulnerable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The team looked at about 4.6 million plumes from 2003 to 2020 in the Western U.S. and Canada. Towards the end of their collection period, Wilmot's team recorded some of its most extreme data points, but Wilmot says it's too early to tell if the trend is accelerating.

“Given climate-driven trends towards increasing atmospheric aridity, declining snowpack, hotter temperatures, etc., we’re seeing larger and more intense wildfires throughout the Western U.S.,” he said in a press release. “And so this is giving us larger burn areas and more intense fires.”

He said the legacy of fire suppression in the West is likely another contributing factor.

Wilmot also noted an increase in the occurrence of pyrocumulonimbus clouds, a phenomenon where smoke plumes reach into the lower stratosphere and create thunderstorms—and carry pollutants even farther away.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Emma Gibson
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