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Los Alamos National Laboratory atmospheric scientist Manvendra Dubey scans his computer screen, eyeing a map of wildfire smoke plumes swirling across the U.S.
The thick smoke has blanketed northern and central New Mexico for the past several days, making air quality unhealthy and obscuring mountain ranges and city skylines.
Dubey studies wildfire smoke chemicals and how the pollution moves. “Urban smog is bad enough, but fire smoke is even more complex,” Dubey said.
The city of Albuquerque has issued smoke and ozone alerts every day since Aug. 5.
Environmental Health Department warnings advise residents of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County with respiratory issues to avoid outdoor activities.
Daniel Porter, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque, said smoky skies will likely persist Tuesday morning. But conditions will slowly improve throughout the week.
“Concentrations of smoke across our area certainly are going to be lower than they were over the past couple of days,” Porter said. “Increasing moisture across the region should help.”
Much of the smoke settling into northern and central New Mexico has been flowing east from wildfires raging across California.
The Dixie Fire in the Sierra Nevada had reached nearly 490,000 acres as of Monday afternoon and was just 21% contained. California Forestry and Fire Protection Department data shows the Dixie Fire is the second-largest in the state’s history.
The 800-acre Amargo Fire near the Jicarilla Apache Nation community of Dulce is also contributing to haze near the New Mexico-Colorado state line.
New Mexico’s complex topography influences how wildfire smoke moves and settles throughout the state.
Polluted atmospheric layers mix, rise and fall throughout the day.
“Smoke from far-away fires, like from California, it travels high up in the atmosphere and you can see it blocking the sun,” Dubey said. “When it hits the mountain ranges like (ours), it goes up and down day and night. Some of that smoke can settle down, and that’s what smoke warnings are.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determines daily air quality by measuring five pollutants, including wildfire smoke chemicals like particulate matter and ozone.
Particulate matter is small enough to get deep into the lungs and cause health problems.
High ozone levels can aggravate respiratory diseases like asthma and emphysema.
Extremely high particulate matter and ozone levels mean that “some members of the general public may experience health effects,” the EPA warns, not only sensitive groups.
People with heart and lung diseases or diabetes, children and pregnant individuals are all at more serious risk when air pollution spikes.
Claire Herrick, an OB-GYN with Presbyterian Medical Group who lives in Rio Rancho and volunteers with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, delivered two babies Sunday night.
The air quality that day was unhealthy for all individuals.
“I know that those women were breathing in dirty air,” Herrick said.
The doctor worries that unhealthy air could cause respiratory issues like asthma for the infants.
“We know that babies that are exposed to this kind of air pollution are a little bit smaller, they come a little bit earlier,” Herrick said.
LANL scientists are part of the emerging field of testing wildfire smoke particles to determine the size and distribution of specific chemicals.
Besides particulate matter, some smoke may contain metals, mercury and formaldehyde.
Dubey and other scientists re-create fires on a small scale in the lab, measuring the emissions. The team can also test how the smoke samples affect microbial organisms.
Big fires may burn hotter than controlled burns and their smoke plumes can drift farther.
Fires that burn in urban areas as well as forested regions may have more complex emissions profiles compared to fires that just scorch trees and grass.
“When plastics burn or when cars burn, we know very little about that wildland-urban interface,” Dubey said.
Porter said smoke will begin to clear as monsoon storms ramp up across New Mexico this week.
“As the moisture levels start to increase, we start increasing the chances for thunderstorms, and those temperatures will start being tempered down a little bit closer or even falling below seasonal averages,” Porter said.
The Gila region and the Sacramento Mountains could have the greatest potential for flash flooding.
“The wildfire burn scars will only add to the risk,” Porter said.
Tuesday in Albuquerque could hit 91 degrees and there is a 20% chance of precipitation. Wednesday and Thursday will likely each reach 92 degrees.
Albuquerque temperatures could drop into the mid-80s as the week progresses.
Slow-moving storms could cause heavy rainfall and flooding across much of the state this weekend.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.