As the Northwest bakes in a potentially historic heat wave, the region is also choking on thick smoke from wildfires

By Tom Yulsman | August 2, 2017 7:00 pm
heat

Smoke from wildfires blankets a large portion of the Pacific Northwest, as seen in this image from the GOES-16 weather satellite acquired on Aug. 2, 2017. (Source: RAMMB/CIRA)

The Pacific Northwest is sitting under a massive heat dome and a horrible pall of thick smoke from raging wildfires in British Columbia and Washington.

Source: RAMMB/CIRA

Source: RAMMB/CIRA

You can see the grayish smoke clearly in the image above from the GOES-16 weather satellite. Make sure to click on it to view it full-sized. Also click on the thumbnail at right for a labeled version so you can get your geographic bearings.

Air quality across some localized parts of western Washington reached unhealthy levels for everyone today, according to the National Weather Service. And across large swaths of the region, the air has been considered unhealthy for sensitive people, such as those with asthma.

Dense smoke from wildfires obscures Vancouver in the upper right quadrant of this image and pours out toward the sea over the Strait of Juan de Fuca separating Vancouver Island from Washington State. The image was acquired by NASA's Terra satellite on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. (Source: NASA Worldview)

Dense smoke from wildfires obscures Vancouver in the upper right quadrant of this satellite image and pours out toward the sea over the Strait of Juan de Fuca separating Vancouver Island (upper left quadrant) from Washington State. The image was acquired by NASA’s Terra satellite on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. (Source: NASA Worldview)

The silver lining is that the smoke in the air is reflecting some incoming solar radiation away, probably helping to keep temperatures just a little cooler than they would otherwise be. But for this region, conditions are still searing. As this afternoon’s forecast discussion from the Portland, Oregon office of the weather service describes the situation:

A significant heat wave is underway across the Pacific Northwest and will continue across most of the region through the rest of the week. The hottest days will be today through Friday, with afternoon temperatures near or above 100 degrees each day in the interior. Many sites will be close to all-time record high temperatures Wednesday and Thursday.

Here is the extended forecast for Portland (click to enlarge it):

Source: National Weather Service

Source: National Weather Service

The graphic tells the tale: excessive heat plus a Red Flag Warning, meaning the hot temperatures and low humidity are causing the wildfire risk to soar.

Just what folks need in a region already choking on smoke.

Also note that the forecast high for Portland tomorrow is 106 degrees. That’s mind-boggling for a city with typical highs at this time of year that are 25 degrees cooler. And if the temperature in the city goes just a degree higher tomorrow, that would “match or exceed its hottest temperature on record (at any time of year) of 107 set in 1942, 1965 and 1981,” writes Jason Samenow, weather editor of the Washington Post. “Only smoke flowing into the region from British Columbia could put a lid on temperatures, preventing all-time highs.”

As Cliff Mass, professor of meteorology at the University of Washington, puts it in his weather and climate blog, “We are talking about one of the major sustained heat waves in a long time around here.”

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  • thebobbob

    Headline Hyperbole. Choking?

    • anseio

      Are you here, in the PNW, bob? If not, then zip it.

      • mjkbk

        I live in the Seattle metro area. And despite the strong smoke smell and haze, no one I have met the last two days has done any “choking”.

        The headline SHOULD have limited its use of that word to describe people with respiratory sensitivities–not to EVERYONE IN THE PNW. So yes, Discover WAS guilty of headline hyperbole here.

        Journos. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

        • anseio

          I’m in the area as well, and it is as you describe. I can smell it pretty strongly and am aware that it’s affecting my sinuses. I’m doing ok with it, but see how it could muck with someone more sensitive.

          To be fair to the author, however, he did mention “the region” as choking, not the people. Six of one, half dozen of another.

    • OWilson

      Weather events follow a Bell Curve.

      There are always outliers at any given time. It’s how the Earth has managed to balance and moderate its climate for the past 3,000.000 years or so.

      A couple of years ago it was the Historic, “New Normal” California Drought to end all Droughts. The Western Snow Pack was “Gone” and Lake Mead water levels were at “Dire” levels.

      Just a year later this Historic Drought was over, they had floods and a record Snow Pack, and Death Valley is ablaze with flowers!

      You must understand that some folks have the religious need to believe that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, at the very time of their own personal adulthood, say 50 years out of 3,000,000 years, and they need infidels, apostates, blasphemers, heretics, deniers and skeptics to blame it all on!

      This too will pass! :)

  • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

    These people have some interesting maps. Sometimes the overlay showing smoke and haze is slow to load. Fires: Current Conditions

    Oops. I don’t know how to post a link here. copy/paste https://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=topics.smoke_wildfires might work, no promises.

    Now – it becomes a link, perhaps.

  • Erik Bosma

    I would imagine that any city near enough to the ocean won’t have the same densities of smoke particulate matter that someone would have living even 50 km inland. So please get your heads out of your rectums before you post. I live in Mission, BC which is about 60 km east of Vancouver. By the way, we live in the Pacific South East which is another example of head-in-ass syndrome. I live about 1 km from a small mountain and can usually see vehicles driving on it. This week I can barely see the mountain. So when visibility is 1 km I would say that it is BAD. Real bad. My lungs and my eyes are in distress.

    • Erik Bosma

      Besides, Mr. Seattle, if you look at the images above, your area has hardly any smoke compared to other areas.

  • Kirby

    I found this article helpful about the hazards of smoke from large fires like the ones in the NW this summer, http://www.pollutionairmask.com/the-health-hazard-of-huge-summer-fires-and-smoke/

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ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

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