MADISON (WKOW) --The effects of extreme and widespread wildfires along the West Coast have shown up here in the form of milky skies and bright red sunrises and sunsets.
Scientists at the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) said Tuesday they're monitoring the projected path of the smoke and how far it remains off the ground as those factors will determine whether air quality across Wisconsin and the Midwest begins to suffer.
"While we're probably going to have some degradation in air quality over the next couple days, possibly as soon as tomorrow afternoon, we are unlikely to see really, really high values of smoke reaching the surface," said Brad Pierce, the Director of the SSEC.
Pierce said he's tracking the smoke plumes using an SSEC model, which projects more smoke to move across Wisconsin Wednesday. Whether that smoke affects air quality depends on if any of the plumes descend to the ground while over the state.
"It's showing two plumes; one at about five kilometers in altitude, another one about 7.5 kilometers," Pierce said.
The SSEC has lidar as one of the many instruments on the roof of its Dayton Street office. Pierce said it's able to measure the altitude of smoke plumes as they drift across the country. Pierce added it's possible the plumes will make it across the Atlantic Ocean and affect air quality in Europe.
In Wisconsin, if the plumes remain three to five miles off the ground, the affect on air quality would continue to be minimal, Pierce said. It would be fortunate as the air quality on the West Coast and in the Pacific Northwest has been downright dangerous to breathe.
"(Monday,) the air quality in the Pacific Northwest was the worst anywhere on the planet," Pierce said.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is in charge of putting out air quality advisories. The DNR reported air quality remained good across the state Tuesday and projected the impact of the smoke in Wisconsin will remain confined to hazy skies and bright red sunrises and sunsets.
Effects of climate change
Both Pierce and Ankur Desai, a climate science professor at UW-Madison, said warming temperatures around the planet are a factor as to why these wildfires have been so intense.
"We have fires like this now much more frequently than we used to," Pierce said. "The fire season in the western U.S. is longer, begins earlier and extends further into the winter and, as you can tell from this year, it's more vigorous."
Pierce said the hotter air makes droughts more intense and allows vegetation to burn more easily, more frequently. Another issue is the warmer temperatures have made the area suitable for invasive species, like bark beetles, which kill a number of trees, rendering them "standing fuel" when a wildfire starts.
Desai said well-meaning fire prevention efforts over the last century have also contributed to the worsening of west coast wildfires.
"Forests, especially in those areas, kind of rely on fire occurring every few years or so," Desai said. "These are relatively small fires; they burn the brush. By suppressing those fires, the forests have grown particularly dense with thinner trees and the effect of that is when it does get dry and it does get hot, you're more likely to have more larger and more intense fires."
Desai said, ultimately, all Americans will feel the effects of the destruction out west.
"Most of the forests in the west are federally owned," Desai said. "That means we collectively have to pay for this."
What it means for Wisconsin
Desai said there's no question in his mind climate change is also slowly affecting the weather patterns in Wisconsin.
"Among climate scientists, there really is no doubt that the climate is changing and it's changing because of fossil fuel emissions from humans," Desai said.
While Wisconsin has had its air affected by past wildfires in the northern part of the state or in Canada, Pierce said a warmer planet won't make Wisconsin forests more susceptible to wildfires because the Midwest gets so much more precipitation than the West Coast.
Pierce added the increased precipitation will likely be the most serious effect of climate change in Wisconsin. He said that will translate to severe flooding more frequently and milder winters with more freezing rain events that would historically have been light snowfalls.
"Where that's gonna have the largest impact, certainly from an economic perspective, is the various winter recreational activities Wisconsin that so much of northern Wisconsin relies on for their economy," Pierce said.