Canada — As last spring’s Quebec forest fires cast a smoky haze across the Northeast, researchers collected data that a new study says showed an increase in pollutants in this area.
Scientists from the Center for Air Resources Engineering and Science at Clarkson University in St. Lawrence County recently released a study that identified an increase in fine particles in the atmosphere of more than 18 times the normal levels.
What scientists called most surprising was a significant increase in mercury levels during the height of the blaze.
“The fire was clearly taking mercury that was in the leaves and wood of the trees getting burned and putting it back into the air,” said Dr. Philip K. Hopke, director of the Center for Air Resources Engineering and Science.
“What is of particular interest is that mercury was being released in forms that made it more mobile.”
The increased levels of mercury did not pose an immediate risk to human health or the environment, but studying this kind of scenario is important, Hopke said, considering the number of forest fires that occur across the globe.
“These fires occur every year. It’s part of the ecology of the boreal forests that form a ring around the Earth to have fairly regular forest fires.”
“Normally, the air flow doesn’t bring (smoke from the fires) south, but there are episodes like this,” he said of the series of fires in 2010.
A similar situation happened in July 2002, when a thick, yellow haze was noted hanging over the North Country for several days.
Last year, as many as 47 separate fires erupted in Quebec during the final week of May into early June. Seven fires were identified as out of control on May 27. More than 350 square miles of remote forests north of Montreal burned. At least 2,000 people, including three reservations, were evacuated as fires raged around them.
Most of the fires were caused by lightning strikes, officials said at the time.
The U.S. National Weather Service reported in late May that smoke from the fires had spread across much of Maine, New Hampshire and as far away as Cape Cod and Boston.
Although the fires continued to burn several weeks into June, the winds became more easterly after May 31, pulling the smoke out of the region.
READY TO MEASURE
Hopke called it a fortunate situation that air-quality systems were up and running at three separate locations: the Clarkson equipment at the university and at Huntington Forest in Newcomb and the State Department of Environmental Conservation monitoring site at Whiteface Mountain.
“When measurements (from the smoke) came through, we were up and running. We were lucky to have these pieces in place so we could put the data together rather quickly and into a review. It gave us a clear understanding of the natural movement of heavy metals through ecosystems.”
As society tries to find ways to reduce human-generated mercury emissions, the scientific study of natural sources, such as the 2010 fires, can help determine future strategies, he added.
“We have fish advisories everywhere in New York state because of mercury in fish. Even as we ratchet down mercury emissions, it’s important to look at other processes and how that contributes to the mercury burden on ecosystems. That may make it more difficult to get to the point where we have low mercury levels.”
There is no clear way of knowing how severe the upcoming fire season will be nor whether winds will be favorable for sending large plumes of smoke south. The typical season for forest fires in the deep Canadian woods is typically in late spring, after the snow melts and the wood has dried.
It is also a time when more thunderstorms strike without a lot of rain, creating the dry lightning strikes that can be deadly to forests.