After hazy skies over Vancouver Island and Washington state this week, both Canada and the United States were able to trace the smoke back to Russia.
Atmospheric transport modelling of smoke from these fires, performed by the Environmental Emergency Response Section of the Meteorological Service of Canada, confirmed the source of the smoke was Siberia.
Data from the Meteorological Service of Canada’s Environmental Emergency Response Section shows that fires burning in eastern Siberia (notably in the Republic of Sakha ) since late July and early August have generated smoke that has travelled to North America and has been reported in southern British Columbia in the first few days of the week of Aug. 10.
The U.S. National Weather Service also documented the jet stream carried the smoke from Siberia up across the interior of Alaska and then blowing it southeast over the Gulf of Alaska and Vancouver Island and western Washington state.
Have you noticed any of that high level haze the last few days? That is smoke from wildfires in Siberia. Satellite shows it made quite the journey through Interior AK before getting here! pic.twitter.com/N9Rx2NmXFr
— NWS Seattle (@NWSSeattle) August 11, 2020
According to NASA Earth Observatory, warm temperatures have led to an intense fire season in eastern Siberia this summer, with satellite data showing that fires have been more abundant, more widespread, and produced more carbon emissions than recent seasons.
As of August 6, approximately 19 fires were burning in the province.
According to Armel Castellan, warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada, while smoke travelling across continents is not a common occurrence, it can happen from time to time.
Castellan said for the smoke from the wildfires to reach Vancouver Island, there has to be intense fires over Siberia injecting smoke high into the atmosphere, a jetstream moving the smoke rapidly without too much dispersion across the north Pacific and jetstream orientation to transport the smoke to the Pacific Northwest as opposed to the Arctic, or further south to the central Pacific.
The air parcels that ended up over southern Vancouver Island on Aug. 11 were traced back in time to elucidate their point of origin. These air parcels passed over the area of reported fires in eastern Siberia on or around Aug. 7. The heat generated by the fires allows the smoke-filled air to rise quickly and is eventually carried downwind of the fires by winds aloft.
The modelling suggests that the smoke travelled at heights varying between two and eight kilometres aloft to reach Canada. Given the wind pattern over southern British Columbia, the smoke is expected to be carried downwind and, barring any fresh input of smoke from such fires, should be out of the area by the end of the week, the Meteorological Service of Canada said.
It’s an interesting one because every once in a while we can look back, use these what we call back trajectories,” Castellan said about the models.
“Its an estimation but it’s using kind of each run of the model going back so you can take an air parcel here at the surface at several layers in the atmosphere, like every 500 metres say, and make a back trajectory from yesterday and the day before and go backwards in time.”
Castellan said the Siberian wildfires did not trigger any fine particulate matter (PM2.5) sensors, which monitor air quality.
Particles in the PM2.5 size range are able to travel deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Exposure to fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath.
Generally, the fires that are super, super far away, like from another continent, don’t affect our air quality,” Castellan said.
“But that haziness can certainly be there.”
And Castellan said smoke from previous wildfires in B.C. have also travelled large distances. He said Health Canada has studied the impacts of some of the 2017 wildfires, including the Elephant Hill and the Plateau Complex wildfires, had on Toronto where the air quality was affected.
“We also had very big wildfire seasons like ’17 and ’18 and have impacted folks on the leeward side of those fires and there was also talk about how some of those models would have measured impacts into Iceland and even Europe. So we have the same impact with our fires on Europe as Siberia does on western North America,” he said.