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Rising temperatures contribute to worsening air quality

Wildfire smoke coming up over Utah mountains
Chris Kofoed
Wildfire smoke over Utah mountains

Wildfire smoke works in similar ways as extreme cold temperatures of the polar vortex we saw a few years ago, and to how hurricanes can move pollution up through the Gulf of Mexico. Everything is interconnected. However, before we even consider smoke from the wildfire season, air quality is increasingly worsening across much of the country due to pollution, with around 30 million people living with bad air quality conditions. Increasing temperatures make the problem worse.

Joseph Wilkins is an assistant professor in the atmospheric science program at Howard University in Washington D.C, he explains how even on days that look beautiful temperatures are contributing to bad air.

“We have these beautiful like popcorn cumulus that just sits there and you look at the shape of the clouds, that type of day, we go outside and go to the beach, it just cooking pollution that's already been sitting there. And so that's what makes air quality worse,” said Wilkins.

This summer brought significant wildfire smoke from Canada to the U.S east coast and with it extremely terrible air quality conditions, reminding many western states of our significant wildfire seasons and their impact on our air. Wilkins said the frequencies of such events in both the east and the west is only likely to continue increasing.

“Usually the west has hotter temperatures, usually the West has more fuel sources, so more forest areas. And so you're gonna see more of that happening out there. However, this is not uncommon in many other parts of the United States,” Wilkins explained. “People just don't talk about it as much, but they don't know about it as much. And they don't experience it year to year the same as they do on the west coast. But it's becoming more frequent. And it's becoming more pervasive.”

The US Forest Service partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency to create a detailed, up to date map of air quality across the country, that includes wildfire smoke. Find a link to the map at

Erin Lewis is a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a PhD Candidate in the biology department at Utah State University. She is passionate about fostering curiosity and communicating science to the public. At USU she studies how anthropogenic disturbances are impacting wildlife, particularly the effects of tourism-induced dietary shifts in endangered Bahamian Rock Iguana populations. In her free time she enjoys reading, painting and getting outside with her dog, Hazel.