Smoke from US wildfires spreads across country and into Europe

NOAA/NASA's Suomi NPP satellite's OMPS (Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite) aerosols from the U.S. wildfires are detected from space.  (Image credit: NOAA/NASA/Worldview)

Smoke from the devastating U.S. wildfires is spreading across the country, moving north into Canada and across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.

Thousands of miles away from the fires, which originated in California and have spread along the U.S. west coast, people are being exposed to some of the fires' effects, which includes carbon monoxide and smog, emerging research is showing.

Monday (Sept. 14), NASA shared images from the agency's joint Suomi NPP satellite with NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), showing the jet stream and winds that have swept smoke and small particles known as aerosols across the United States.

Related: Raging California wildfires spotted from space (photos, video)

The smoke particles will "bring hazardous air quality across the country," NASA warned in the statement on Monday. "Aerosols are a mixture of small particles and chemicals produced by the incomplete burning of carbon-containing materials such as trees, grasses, peat and brush. All smoke contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and particulate matter … The smaller the particles, the easier they are to be inhaled and absorbed into the lungs."

Pollution from aerosols is associated with a range of adverse health effects, NASA said in the same statement, quoting the Environmental Protection Agency's guidance. These health effects can range from burning eyes to runny noses, aggravated heart and lung diseases and more. At worst, such pollution can cause premature death. 

A Nature Geoscience study in May 2017 showed that particle pollution from wildfires was three times worse for human health than previously thought, and this pollution can include noxious chemicals such as methanol, benzene and ozone.

NASA's Atmospheric Infrared Sounder, which is aboard the Aqua satellite, is tracking carbon monoxide plumes from the wildfires. The agency noted that the pollutant can remain in the atmosphere for a month after its release and travel great distances, affecting air quality as it goes. Carbon monoxide is also a known contributor to global warming.

The United States is not alone in suffering the effects of these fires. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. said on Tuesday (Sept. 15) that the smoke has drifted into at least five Canadian provinces. The European Space Agency (ESA) is also tracking smoke-borne activity across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe, through its Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) that uses Earth-gazing satellites for weather and climate predictions. CAMS is also tracking carbon monoxide at different heights in the atmosphere.

"Comparing fire activity in the U.S. against previous years, CAMS has seen that activity this year has been tens to hundreds of times more intense than the 2003–2019 average in the U.S. in general, as well as in several affected states," ESA stated on Wednesday (Sept. 16). "The fires are also emitting lots of smoke and pollution into the atmosphere; those in California and Oregon have already emitted far more carbon in 2020 than in any other year since CAMS records begin in 2003."

"The fact that these fires are emitting so much pollution into the atmosphere that we can still see thick smoke over 8,000 kilometers [5,000 miles] away reflects just how devastating they have been in their magnitude and duration," added Mark Parrington, CAMS senior scientist, in the ESA statement.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: