Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

A gloomy year-end review: Minnesotans inhaled more wildfire smoke in 2023 than much of the U.S.

A view of downtown buildings in Minneapolis covered in haze
Hazy skies continue to blanket Minneapolis on June 14.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Remember our summer of smoke? The murky skies? The smell? There were days where you could almost taste the smoke. A special report from Axios finds this year, Minnesotans inhaled more Canadian wildfire smoke than much of the United States. In fact, the amount of smoke you took in was as if you smoked nearly four packs of cigarettes.

Thousands of wildfires across Canada this year incinerated an area larger than Florida and those fires are still burning today in Alberta and British Columbia. Thankfully, that smoke has not traveled to Minnesota the way it did this summer.

MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer looks back at the impacts of poor air quality in 2023 with Axios Twin Cities reporter Torey Van Oot.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] INTERVIEWER: Remember our summer of smoke? The murky skies, the smell, there were days where you could almost taste the smoke. A Special Report from Axios finds this year, Minnesotans inhaled more Canadian wildfire smoke than much of the US. In fact, the amount of smoke you took in was as if you smoked nearly four packs of cigarettes.

Thousands of wildfires across Canada this year incinerated an area larger than Florida. And those fires are still burning today in Alberta and British Columbia. Thankfully, that smoke has not made it to our air in the way it did this summer. Now that we're wrapping up the year, we're taking a look back at the impact this bad air quality has had on us.

Joining us right now is Axios Twin Cities reporter, Torey Van Oot. Hey, Torey. How are you?

TOREY VAN OOT: Hey, Cathy. Thanks for having us.

INTERVIEWER: Hey, thanks for being here. I read the article this morning in the Axios newsletter. It looks like North Dakota and Minnesota were blanketed by wildfire smoke. There was a really good interactive map. The air quality in the Twin Cities and the exposure that Twin Cities residents had to pollution was higher than average. Can you break that down for us?

TOREY VAN OOT: It was. And just to zoom out for a second, as you mentioned, these massive fires, the big picture that my colleagues on the Axios data visualization stuff who did the heavy lifting of this analysis found that overall, this wildfire season more than doubled the previous record for fire-related air pollution in the US.

So unfortunately for us, as you mentioned, in the lead in here, we were in the pathway of the plumes. So we had some of those really gross days, which I can think about breathing it in too recalling from this summer. Nationwide, the average American was exposed to 66% more air pollution than in 2021.

Now in the Twin Cities, like you mentioned, we got a lot of that, and the average air quality index, which measures of pollution in the air, essentially was over five times higher than it was in 2022. And so that number kind of shows you. It was well above average, too, for the previous decade or so. So that really shows you just how much more intense the smoke was for us this year than it often is.

INTERVIEWER: And I think that your colleagues broke this down. The fine particle pollution this year was the equivalent of smoking, what, almost 90 cigarettes?

TOREY VAN OOT: Almost 90 cigarettes, yeah. And that's why it matters here. Of course, we all know it's gross. It feels gross, right?

It doesn't feel good, and it kind of puts a damper on the summer when you look up and the skies are all hazy and cloudy and thick, not like the beautiful blue skies we have today. But the why it matters is that this levels of smoke and air pollution, they're really bad for you, right?

They can cause irritation in your lungs and things like that. They can cause longer-term health issues as well, especially for sensitive groups, young people, elderly people. So it does have an impact beyond just making summer feel a little bit less fun when the skies are so heavy and gross.

INTERVIEWER: What does the PCA say about all of this?

TOREY VAN OOT: Well, they have some statistics too that really reflect how much more serious the smoke was this past year. And so the NPCA puts out these air quality alerts, which is a good tip for-- we don't have the smoke as you mentioned right now, but that's a good benchmark for people to know whether the air quality is healthy or unhealthy that day.

And orange, which is one of the more serious levels especially for sensitive groups, young people, elderly people with different breathing issues, we hit 38 orange days this summer and this year so far. And 11 red, which is the most serious unhealthy level of air quality this summer.

Now for some comparison, the average since 2010 was eight orange days and only one to two red days each summer. So again, you're going from an average of eight orange and one to two red to 38 days with an orange AQI and 11 with a red. So that again is another data point that points to how much more serious the smoke was this year and unrelenting, really, than it has been in recent years here in Minnesota.

And this we can talk about this too, this has been kind of a fact of life for people and especially in the Pacific Northwest. You see a lot more air quality issues with Canadian wildfire smokes even before these past couple of years. But we're seeing more of it reach us in Minnesota more recently.

INTERVIEWER: And I'm wondering about next year. We have this really dry winter so far. We barely have any snow. And we had even a red flag warning last week in Minnesota. With this drier climate, longer fire seasons, I wonder, will we see another summer like this next year and in future years?

TOREY VAN OOT: That's a good question about next summer, specifically. What we do know is the longer-term trend is that the change in climate is making fire season more intense and longer, which equals more smoke and increases the likelihood that we're going to be in the path of one of those plumes. Climate change has more than doubled the likelihood of extreme fires in parts of Canada, our colleagues found.

And so what next year's forecast holds, we'll have to see what happens with the fires next year, how the next couple of months play out, how next summer plays out. But long term, this doesn't look like something that's going to die down.

INTERVIEWER: This report looks at the whole country, and of course, when you see this interactive map, as I mentioned, you see North Dakota and Minnesota just kind of right in the middle of this blanket of smoke. I know your colleague that put together this had some firsthand experience in Minnesota.

TOREY VAN OOT: Yes. My colleague, Will Chase, is on our national data visualizations desk, but it's actually a local angle of the story. Because he lives here in Minneapolis. He would have loved to join today on the radio as well, but he just went to travel for the holidays.

But Will was here in Minneapolis and experiencing the thick smoke and hazy skies this summer as a newcomer to Minneapolis. He hasn't lived here that long. It inspired him to want to look at this and look at the trends in the wildfire smoke and where it's come from and where it's going next.

INTERVIEWER: It was just a crazy summer. As I say, you could almost taste the smoke. Uck. All right, it was really an interesting read. Torey, thank you so very much.

TOREY VAN OOT: Thanks for having us.

INTERVIEWER: Torey Van Oot is a reporter for Axios Twin Cities. We have a link to the report up on mprnews.org.

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