Dust and smoke from fires, dry land and construction this spring periodically turn Colorado’s blue skies red, and air quality experts expect even crazier fog in the future as the wind washes away particles from the dry southwest.
Concentrations of small particles trapped in the lungs reached 207 micrograms per cubic meter of air on Monday afternoon in Colorado Springs for 24 hours. That’s 33% higher than the federal health threshold of 155 micrograms. The level briefly rose to 422 on a state monitor near a college in Colorado before sunrise, then quickly dissipated, a challenge for government officials tasked with keeping public health warnings up to date.
Many sources are mixing, state and federal meteorologists said, as strong winds carry heavy clouds. Smoke from wildfires in New Mexico, which burned more than 250,000 acres, has risen to high levels. Dust from the dry region of the Four Corners and other landscapes has reached Colorado’s City Front Range. And the open sand from the common construction sites, where the topsoil was scraped off, intensifies the wind-shaken boiling.
Visibility at times decreases to less than five miles, a measure public health officials say residents can use to determine if air is unhealthy to breathe. From the Denver subway south to Trinidad this week, residents periodically could not see the mountains.
Expect more of the same with forecasts that require higher-than-average heat, red flag fire risks and no rain this week.
And expect more in the future if current climate trends continue, said Jeff Derry, director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Research, which has been monitoring satellite images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and dust on mountain snow since 2002.
“Drought and heat mean we are likely to see more fires. That means more smoke. For dust, with stressed vegetation and less water in landscapes in areas with dust sources in the southwest, we should probably expect more dust,” Derry said. .
“All the science is pointing to that. It means lower air quality. And that means more dust in the mountains on snow,” he said. “It will melt the snow faster. Earlier melting snow usually means less water later in the summer.”
Meteorologists at the National Weather Service, observing satellite imagery, have tracked a number of wind-powered jets that are spreading in Colorado.
Significant smoke from the wildfires in New Mexico that forced the evacuations “is not necessarily something people will smell, but it looks foggy” along the front chain, said NWS meteorologist Carrie Bowen. “And then there’s a little bit of dust over northwestern New Mexico. And localized dust can pick up. If people live near construction sites and it’s a little windy, they can see the dust that way,” Bowen said. “The landscape can become very dry, which creates the ability at a certain wind speed to lift more of this dirt and carry it until it dries.”
Public health authorities on Monday and Tuesday issued an unhealthy air warning for sensitive people (children, the elderly and infirm) in the Colorado Springs area. Denver subway air quality has deteriorated to “moderate” unhealthy conditions. What residents face varies by location and varies.
“The best thing to do is always be aware of the air quality in your location,” said Dan Welsh, an air quality meteorologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. the new dust and smoke storms that began on Sunday as “noticeable in intensity in a short time.”
Colorado residents can check government-run websites (colorado.gov/air quality and airnow.gov) and must “take all health precautions you deem necessary,” Welsh said.
Medical experts warn of potential “complicating effects” as the particles mix with ozone pollution on the ground, which Colorado is considered a “serious” violator of federal health standards. The wind also spreads pollen, which affects people with allergies.
“You’re starting to get a lot of chemical reactions,” said Dr. Mark Eret, an honorary professor at the Mayo Clinic who serves on air filtration companies and helps run the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers.
“We need to look at the concept of our lifelong exposure,” Eret said.
“The particles pass into your bloodstream. They are absorbed by your organs. There they introduce inflammation. Inflammation is a source of hardening of the arteries and cerebrovascular disease,” he said. “We will have to change our lifestyle indoors and outdoors based on air quality … There is no doubt that breathing cleaner air will prolong your life.”
The first step towards reducing exposure during dust storms is to reduce physical activity and indoor movement, health officials say. Filtering indoor air with air conditioners and other devices can create safe spaces, especially for sleeping.
The face masks that residents accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic can also be used to reduce the amount of particles and pollen you inhale.
“Be aware of the air quality conditions in your area,” Welsh said. “Know what prevention measures to take to protect yourself.”
The Colorado snow cover is melting at a “ridiculous” rate
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