Prepare for another summer of air quality alerts, but less than ’23

Published 9:21 am Friday, May 10, 2024

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By Cari Spencer, Minnesota Public Radio News

Minnesotans can expect more air quality alerts than usual this summer, but probably won’t have to hide out the wildfire haze as much as last year, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The MCPA says a record of 21 air quality alerts were issued last year, spanning over 52 days with air quality concerns. Of those, 16 were related to wildfire smoke.

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“The impacts of those air quality alerts stemmed the entire state,” said MPCA lead meteorologist Matt Taraldsen at a press event Thursday. “And unfortunately, it became part of many Minnesotans’ daily ritual, where they got up and they checked the air quality index to see, could their kids play outside? Would it be safe for them to go for a run?”

Taraldsen said this year’s predictions are based on forecasts for high temperatures and more wildfires than usual, due to drought in parts of Minnesota and much of Canada — but not as many as last year.

“At this point last year, we already had fires raging in Canada. Parts of Canada near the Arctic Circle were above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. We’re not seeing that this year, which is a good sign,” he said. “So the early fire season has been quiet but it’s not something we can let our guard down on. In June, if there’s a dry period and drought expands, which it could do, that will fuel more wildfires and more smoke.”

Last year was globally the hottest year on record — and the wildfire season in Canada doubled the previous record, held in 1995, for acres burned. It’s well acknowledged that climate change has driven an increase in the risk and extent of wildfires.

While the team believes climate change contributed to the summer of canceled soccer games and picnics in Minnesota, Taraldsen said the extremely adverse air was an outlier — influenced largely by a strong El Niño that has since dissipated.

“The combination of both climate change and the extreme El Niño pattern is really what pushed not only the weather patterns to drive the prolonged wildfire season but also the jet streams and other air currents that push that smoke from Canada down into Minnesota and down to the surface,” he said.

“Although we’re forecasting an above-average season, we’re not forecasting the same type of severity as 2023.”

The average number of air quality alerts per year is five to seven when removing the outlier of last summer, Taraldsen said. This year, the prediction is more than eight.

Because of predicted slightly above-normal temperatures, the risk of air quality alerts from elevated surface ozone is higher, the MPCA said, with Twin Cities suburbs and Rochester metro areas facing the greatest impacts in early summer.

Surface ozone is a primary ingredient in smog and is detrimental to the lungs, exacerbating asthma and increasing the risk of infection with accumulated exposure.

“If you have kids with asthma or if you have asthma, you know that last summer was brutal,” said Gov. Tim Walz at a press event Thursday. “And unfortunately, I think it’s something we’re going to have to deal with going forward just because of the nature of the unpredictable climate that we’re seeing.”

The MPCA says Minnesotans can expect air quality alerts to include time frames to avoid certain activities and suggestions for how to reduce their own impacts on air quality — such as cutting down on driving.

That helps reduce surface ozone formation, Tarladsen said, which can occur when pollutants emitted by car exhaust and factories are baked by heat and sunlight. As average temperatures increase, surface ozone is anticipated to worsen.

This year, the MPCA forecasts two to four days with ozone warnings, compared to the average of two to three. Last year, ozone warnings were issued on six days.

“Warmer days, warmer winters, fewer days of lake ice, storms with unpredictable and more dynamic intensity and heat waves are all changes we can expect to unfortunately see more of in the coming years,” said Katrina Kessler, commissioner of the MPCA. “Our lakes, our rivers, our cold weather traditions and sunny vibrant summers are at stake. To keep Minnesota a great place to raise a family, we must prepare for these changes.”