Smoke Gets in Your Eyes


People living in the eastern half of the United States are used to hazy conditions in the summer, which are typically caused by high humidity. Large amounts of water vapor in the air diffracts sunlight, creating haze. “Hazy, hot, and humid” is a typical summertime forecast for the eastern half of the country. This summer, however, and particularly in August, conditions are even hazier than usual, bringing on for some people respiratory distress symptoms such as watery eyes, runny nose, and congested lungs, and even aggravating heart problems. For the answer, look to a record summer wildfire season all the way on the other end of the country, in California, Oregon, Washington, and some other western states, as well as western Canada.


The prevailing winds at northern hemisphere mid-latitudes move west to east, of course, and there is so much smoke being produced by fires in the west this summer that not even the Rocky Mountains present enough of an obstacle to block the progression of all that smoke across the country to the midwest and then to the east coast. Most of the smoke has stayed to the north, with some drifting into the mid Atlantic states and very little making its way into the south. Besides promoting unusually hazy skies for all and respiratory distress for some, the smoke has created intensely red sunsets and high rainfall events, all because of the extra particulates floating in the atmosphere.

Holy Fire August 10, 2018
Smoke plume from the Holy fire in Orange County, California, on the morning of August 10, 2018. Photo by Shannon1.

The situation for people living in the west is dire not only on account of the great amount of smoke but because of the threat to life and property posed by the fires. Naturally the effects of the wildfires are at their worst closest to the flames. For people in the eastern half of the country, who may not give the fires even a second thought after hearing about them on the news, there are nonetheless effects that they may not attribute to the western wildfires simply because they are very far away. The situation in the east is analogous to the effects of a far off volcanic eruption such as from Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, or possibly the continental effects of the Dust Bowl in 1930s America. In those cases, dust and very fine particles drifted over the eastern United States as well as other places around the world and affected air quality and with it, the weather.

It’s easy to shut the windows, turn up the air conditioning, and pretend what’s happening in the greater world has no effect locally. That denial doesn’t alter the fact that the greater world does affect people, plants, and animals in their local environment. The butterfly effect is indeed a real thing, as anyone can observe simply by opening their eyes. In the eastern United States, where wildfires have not caused major inconveniences for most people this summer, it may be easy to shut the windows and thereby shut out the smoky haze drifting in from the west, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there hanging around, changing the weather day to day on account of the changes in the climate year to year.
— Ed.