Potential Human Health Impacts from Wildfires in Local Alaskan Communities

Lucia Woo
Michelle Bell
Start Date: 
October, 2015

This research project will investigate if any link exists between high air pollution events from nearby wildfires and risk for respiratory illness symptoms for the growing Alaskan communities. The current warming trends in the Arctic have rendered limited snowpack in Alaska, which lead to earlier exposure of wildfire fuels. This phenomenon increases the likelihood of prolonged periods of drier-than-usual conditions that are conducive to larger and more frequent wildfires. The smoke resulting from these wildfires consist of alarmingly high concentrations of particulate matter sized 2.5 µm or smaller (PM2.5) that pose significant public health risks, especially for susceptible populations who are young, elderly, asthmatic, or impoverished.

The city of Anchorage is historically known for its clean air quality due to lack of industrial emissions. But given the appropriate meteorological conditions such as wind direction and atmospheric inversion, it is geographically vulnerable to wildfire smokes since it is located in a basin. Thus, Anchorage presents an opportunity to study a high-latitude community’s resistance to disturbances from climate changes. To address if the increased risk of wildfire will lead to increased public health risk from air pollution, this one-year case study will examine the hourly PM2.5 concentration and meteorological measurements from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s ambient air quality monitors, hospital records of asthmatic events, and remote sensing data products of wildfires. Upon the completion of the case study, all findings will be communicated to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the American Lung Association in Alaska to improve the air quality monitoring network, communication tools, and public engagement.