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This Clarkson professor is tracking the hazy air quality. Here's how you can stay safe

 Hazy air in Lowville in Lewis County on June 6, 2023. Photo credit to Shaun Brown
Shaun Brown
Hazy air in Lowville in Lewis County on June 6, 2023. Shaun Brown

There are more than 150 wildfires burning in Quebec right now and smoke from those fires is being blown down across New York State. Health officials have been advising people to limit their time outdoors, especially children, the elderly, and people with heart or breathing problems.

Clarkson professor Dr. Suresh Dhaniyala, who teaches mechanical and aerospace engineering and studies air quality, has been tracking the wildfire smoke and its effects on air quality in the North Country.

EMILY RUSSELL: A lot of the fires in Quebec are burning hundreds of miles away. How is it possible that that smoke from up there can blow this far south and feel like it's like settling right on top of us?

SURESH DHANIYALA: I think what you're experiencing here is what people on the West Coast see all the time, particulate matter from fires that travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles. These particles, during a fire event, the biggest particles will drop closest to where the fires is, at the source of the fire. And the smaller particles get elevated by the hot air generated during a fire. And once they gets up to a little bit of an altitude, the winds can carry them a long distance. And we're talking about particulate matter right now that's largely smaller than 10 microns, and most of the particles are probably smaller than 2.5 microns. So these particulates are about 1/10 the size of your hair. So very, very small particles, and so they don't drop down that quickly. They can remain afloat in the air and if there's, winds even just a breeze, they will be carried out long distances.

RUSSELL: Why is it bad to breathe in fine particulate matter?

DHANIYALA: So particles smaller than 10 microns can be effectively transported through our upper respiratory system into our lungs. Smaller particles, especially if they're smaller than about 2.5 microns, those ones can travel the deepest to your respiratory system. They're going to be transported deep into your lungs and any of them will remain there. Some of them you exhale back out, but you're depositing a lot of these particles inside you.

Hazy air over the Adirondack High Peaks on Monday, June 5, 2023.
Charlotte Staats
Hazy air over the Adirondack High Peaks on Monday, June 5, 2023.

RUSSELL: Have you been changing what you do in these last few days in terms of being outdoors?

DHANIYALA: No, not me personally I haven't made a change yet. But my daughter, she is asthmatic, so we told her to curtail outdoor exercising. But I think the numbers have gone up since this morning too, so in the evening we will probably take a shorter walk than we would normally do.

RUSSELL: You've been tracking the wildfire smoke from the Clarkson campus in Potsdam. How have you been doing that? And what are you seeing?

Clarkson professor Dr. Suresh Dhaniyala is tracking the air quality with a rooftop monitor on campus.
Dr. Suresh Dhaniyala
Clarkson professor Dr. Suresh Dhaniyala is tracking the air quality with a rooftop monitor on campus.

DHANIYALA: We have air quality sensors outdoors on our roof and indoors in our classrooms. And we've been monitoring outside inside air so we can understand ventilation systems and how to optimize that on a consistent basis. With this event happening right now, what we have noticed is, of course, the outdoor air has climbed up consistently over the last 36 to 40 hours. And as you know, the air quality here in the North Country is exceptional. So the particulate matter numbers, which are typically measured in micrograms per meter cube, is well below 10 micrograms per meter cube. And now we are seeing numbers about 150 micrograms per meter cube. This will compare with some of the most polluted cities in the world. And you know, we bring a lot of outdoor air indoors, that's the way to keep the indoor air safe so we don't have built up of indoor pollutants. But right now bringing in outdoor air inside also brings in outdoor pollutants. And so what you're seeing is that indoor air can also be quite unhealthy.

RUSSELL: From your research and just your understanding of climate change and the environment, do you think that a place like the Adirondack North Country is going to experience more of this kind of poor air quality from wildfires hundreds of miles away?

DHANIYALA: Yeah, you know, that's a great question. On a regular basis here in the North Country, the particulate matter numbers and in general our air quality is exceptional. And so we are usually well below the levels of what we need to maintain to have healthy air. With forest fires, all bets are off because these are not pollutants we are generating locally. They're transported hundreds of miles and even thousands of miles. We know that we can see forest fire particles from the west coast all the way out in the Midwest, so with increasing temperatures and changing precipitation patterns, it is possible that the wildfire events will be different in terms of magnitude and frequency. So I do expect that we will have more days like these, but it's tough to control because these are not local events, they're not something that we can control by regulations. It is an air pollution problem, but it is driven by climate change and driven by policies that are different from the environmental policies that manage local air pollution.