Are your air purifiers and emergency supplies ready? Bad air quality can come from any direction!
“Wildfire season” historically starts June 1, but the concept of a “fire year” is more accurate when fires in Canada begin in April. This year’s fires in British Columbia and Alberta started in April, and now nearly all of Canada’s ten provinces have fires burning. The problem for Americans, especially northern states, is that air currents carry the smoke aloft and bring it to remote places, sometimes thousands of miles away. Certainly people on the mid-Atlantic coast did not expect to see hazy skies or low air quality, but we now know that distant events can wreak havoc on our air quality.
Take for instance volcanoes. According to research published in 2018 by scientists at the Imperial College of London, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1816 may have in part been caused by a volcanic eruption in Indonesia two months prior. This eruption of Mount Tambora was the most destructive explosion on earth in the past 10,000 years, killing over 90.000 people and blasting 12 cubic miles of gasses, dust and rock into the atmosphere and over the island and surrounding area. (Blast from the Past) The ash spewed into the air was carried even higher than it would be by winds alone, due to electrostatic forces. Negative charges from volcano plume gave the ash a negative charge, repelling it into the air and even as high as the ionosphere, which is a layer of our atmosphere that extends from 50-400 miles above the earth and is responsible for cloud formation. Even though the charged ash did not reach Europe, it “short-circuited” the ionosphere, initially stopping clouds from forming. Later, however, the clouds surged back, inundating places like Waterloo which normally only had 2” of rain for the entire month of June. On 16-18 of June 1815, however, the area received unseasonably heavy rains that made the earth very soft, slowing down cavalry and artillery movements, and delaying the battle on June 18 so that the Prussian forces arrived in time to support the Allies and defeat Napoleon. This type of cloud suppression was documented following the eruption of another Indonesian volcano, Krakatau in 1883, and reports of ionosphere disturbance followed the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Philippines in 1993.
So now we know that volcanoes can interrupt flight schedules, battle plans, and…global rain clouds. Less rain equals more drought, and more drought equals more wildfires. When the clouds come back to a drought-damaged area, lightning can spark many fires. In Quebec, for example, fires were sparked by lightning, but officials in Alberta have said that the cause of fires there is currently unknown. (How did the Canadian wildfires start?) This is how volcano eruptions can change world events and weather, halfway around the world!
So, while interruptions to daily activities in the Northeast are hopefully temporary due to the Canadian wildfires, we have to look further to be prepared for the next blanket of wildfire smoke. Studies regarding erupting volcanoes have shown that they have different atmospheric consequences depending on which hemisphere they are located. Here are some of the results:
Scientists studied 54 large explosive eruptions during 501–2000 AD including 16 in the Northern Hemisphere (NH), 25 equatorial and 13 in the Southern Hemisphere (SH). In the first two years following an eruption, NH volcanoes decrease NH monsoon volume, and SH volcanoes decrease SH monsoon volume. They tend to have the opposite effect on the opposite hemisphere, for example, a volcano in the NH will increase precipitation in the SH the first year, with diminished increase in the second year. (Global monsoon precipitation responses to large volcanic eruptions)
Long-term, however, volcanoes near the equator tend to have greater impacts than the high-latitude eruptions on global climate because their stratospheric aerosol clouds cover a larger surface area and have a longer residence time, and because the aerosols are then transported poleward in both hemispheres and eventually cover the entire globe. (Climate response to large, high-latitude and low-latitude volcanic eruptions in the Community Climate System Model)
Volcanoes inject a number of things into the atmosphere when they erupt. Rocks and larger particles are the first to fall out of the atmosphere, ash can linger for several months, H20 , N2, and CO2 are the most abundant, and sulfur aerosols are responsible for reflecting light back into space and generally cooling the atmosphere. For example, the Pinatubo eruption in 1991 injected an estimated 20 metric tons of SO2 into the atmosphere, leading to a temporary (∼2 years) reversal of the late twentieth century global warming trend. Did you know that volcanoes also inspire art? The famous 1893 Edvard Munch painting, "The Scream," shows a red volcanic sunset over the Oslo harbor produced by the 1892 Awu eruption, and the 1815 Mount Tambora explosion inspired the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley due to the 1816 “year without a summer” which was unseasonably cold and gloomy. (Volcanic Eruptions and Climate)
Mount Tonga, an equatorial submarine volcano, released an enormous amount of water vapor high into the atmosphere (mesosphere) when it erupted in February 2022, which caused weather anomalies globally. Increased rainfall in the southern hemisphere following the jet stream was recorded, and much of the northern hemisphere had drier conditions than average. (Influence of Volcanic Activity on Weather and Climate Changes)
But non-volcanic activity can be just as dangerous...
Halocarbons, used in foam insulation, refrigeration and other appliances, were released during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan, amounting to 6600 metric tons. This is an increase of 21-91% over typical levels of six halocarbons that deplete ozone, which in turn affects weather patterns. (Deadly Japan Quake and Tsunami Spurred Global Warming, Ozone Loss) Of course, the major headline after this earthquake was the destruction of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant when the earthquake disabled the power and cooling to its three reactors. There were no deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the nuclear accident, but over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes as a preventative measure. (Fukushima Daiichi Accident)
Other natural disasters have damaged nuclear plants, like a 1998 tornado that knocked out power to the Davis-Besse plant outside Toledo, Ohio, and Hurricane Andrew, which knocked out power to the Turkey Point plant south of Miami site for five days in 1992. In 2008, Hurricane Gustav damaged the River Bend Nuclear Generation Station in St. Francisville, La. At both Davis-Besse and Turkey Point, the plants' emergency diesel generators kept the equipment running until crews fixed the power lines. (Can U.S. Nuclear Plants Handle a Major Natural Disaster?)
The Carrington Event of 1859 was the most intense geomagnetic storm in recorded history. Earth narrowly missed receiving another series of solar flares in July 2012, which may have exceeded the strength of the Carrington event and prompted widespread power and communications outages. (Carrington-class CME Narrowly Misses Earth)
It just goes to show that natural disasters can have global consequences. For the next weather changes and wildfire risks, we could look far and long, or just be prepared with extra filters, masks, food and water, and a well-sealed home. This is prudent because unfortunately, it only takes one badly-placed volcanic eruption, solar flare, earthquake, hurricane or tornado to upset a nuclear power plant or spew toxins into the air, sending the world and its weather into chaos.