Why are Canadian wildfires affecting the U.S.?

Want to know a better term for “global warming?” “Global weirding.” Freak snowstorms in Texas? Wildfires in Siberia?

And this past week, another wall of weirdness wafted over the Eastern U.S.: thick, smelly smoke from the 400 wildfires burning in Canada. Right now, about 11 million acres are on fire. That’s bigger than Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey combined.


BC Wildfire Service

Two anomalies were at play simultaneously: First, Canadian wildfires that have burned 15 times more area than average; and winds that blew the smoke south, and then stalled.

“This last week saw the worst wildfire smoke exposures across the country ever seen,” said Vijay Limaye, a senior scientist and environmental epidemiologist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s not just trees going up in flames. It’s homes, it’s cars, car batteries Wildfire smoke is actually a toxic soup of multiple air pollutants.”

Even worse, we’re inhaling particles that are less than one ten-thousandth of an inch. For size comparison, here’s a piece of human hair. 

A comparison of particulate matter being carried by the Canadian wildfire smoke versus a magnified human hair. 

CBS News

Limaye said, “They enter deep into our lungs, and from there they enter the bloodstream. They’re able to transport all sorts of deadly compounds, including carcinogens, to multiple organ systems.”

Truth is, wildfire smoke isn’t that freakish any more. At one point, in 2020, San Francisco looked like this…

Cars drive along the Golden Gate Bridge under an orange smoke-filled sky at midday in San Francisco, September 9, 2020. There were 35 major wildfires burning in the state, with at least five towns “substantially destroyed” and mass evacuations taking place.

HAROLD POSTIC/AFP via Getty Images

And the East Coast has been hit by Canada’s smoke before, too, in 2002.

For now, the smoke is finally clearing out. But according to Limaye, “Canada is on track to have its worst wildfire season on record, and it’s only early June. We haven’t even technically begun summer yet.”

So, to conclude:

  • Canadian wildfires: Not unusual. 🥱
  • The smoke reaching this far South: Very rare. 😧
  • Canadian fires this big, this early in the season?  Freakish! 😨

Limaye said, “The climate science indicates that this could just be the beginning. We’re going to see fires start earlier [and] last longer. We may look back at this first week of June in 2023 fondly in the future as a relatively modest event.”

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Story produced by Amiel Weisfogel and Robert Marston. Editor: Emanuele Secci. 

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