Worsening Wildfires Are Undoing Air Quality Progress In The US

11:42 minutes

A city skyline barely visible through thick grey smoke. Two people stand on a dock photographing it.
Downtown Portland, Oregon, seen through a smoke-filled sky during wildfires in September 2020. Credit: Shutterstock

The Western US has seen both more frequent and more intense wildfires over the past couple decades, leading to lower air quality and increased deaths in the region between 2000 and 2020, according to a new study published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal. While the EPA has made progress in improving air quality in the country, those gains are being undone by smoke from wildfires.

The study looked at particulate matter called PM2.5 and a toxic component of it, black carbon. The researchers found that after years of trending downward nationally, the concentration of PM2.5–and the proportion of black carbon within it–began to increase in the West in 2010. This shift was linked to an increase of 670 premature deaths per year in the region.

Joining Ira to talk about this and other science news of the week is Rachel Feltman, host of the podcast The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week. They also discuss a surprise found in the oldest known mosquito fossil, why a national plastic bag recycling program was shut down, and why dwarf planet Eris’ surface is a little squishy.

Segment Guests

Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltman is author of Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex, and is the host of “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.”

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Sitting in with me is Flora Lichtman. Flora, welcome back.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira. It’s nice to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Later in the hour, we’ll be talking to astronaut, Mike Massimino about his path to the launch pad, and what he learned in outer space about succeeding here on Earth. If you’d like to talk to Mike, give us a call. Our number is 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK, or tweet us scifri.

IRA FLATOW: But first, smoke from increased wildfires in the US has reversed progress made in cleaning America’s air, caused hundreds of deaths between 2000 and 2020 according to a new study published in The Lancet. Joining me to talk about this and other science stories of the week is Rachel Feltman, host of The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week. That is the name of her show. Anyhow, based in New York, nice to have you back, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. So all right, tell us about this new report, if you will.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah so as anyone who has been alive for this period of time might be aware, the EPA has made a lot of progress cleaning up America’s air since the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, according to this new study, all of the increase in wildfire smoke because of course wildfire seasons are growing longer, wildfires are becoming more common in more areas, may have actually been enough to at least on the West Coast, null out that progress in terms of at least fatalities that are tied to air pollution.

IRA FLATOW: So if there’s not a fire, is the air pretty good otherwise?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so air quality is still something that is very dependent on where you are and what’s going on. So if you look at the air quality report for your area and it says the air is safe, it totally is. That’s why the researchers in particular were saying that these 670 premature deaths were in the West, in particular. But they didn’t include data from this last wildfire season, which of course, as all your listeners know, led to some really, really bad air quality all the way on the East Coast.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Right, I got it. Let’s move on to your next story, which is about researchers discovering the oldest known fossils of mosquitoes. Wow. What did they learn there?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, 130 million years old. Apparently that’s still not the oldest mosquito that existed. We know they were around for a long time at that point. But they found these two males. And what’s really interesting is that these two males had the kind of mouth anatomy you need to drink blood. And today, only female mosquitoes drink blood. It’s something they only do when they need protein to help eggs develop. So this is just a really interesting look into mosquito evolution, showing us that at some point probably all mosquitoes were blood suckers.

IRA FLATOW: No Jurassic Park ancient mosquito blood angle here in this.

RACHEL FELTMAN: I hope not. I can’t speak to that, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: All right let’s move into space news. It wouldn’t be Science Friday without some space news. You brought us a bunch of stories, a really cool one up first, a solar system was discovered with six planets orbiting in sync. They’re calling it the solar six pack. Tell us about that.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so this multi-planet system, the gravitational formation is known as resonance. So basically it’s kind of a tongue twister but like the planets are orbiting in this fixed ratio. So every time one of them makes three orbits, the one tighter in makes two orbits. And it’s such a perfect ratio that they first spotted a couple of the planets. And they were actually able to guess how many other planets they were going to find between them. Because they were they’re following this pattern so perfectly. There have to be others in there to fill in the gaps of this synchronized ratio we’re seeing.

So it’s really cool. It’s very rare to find planets in sync like this.

IRA FLATOW: What I like about this besides how cool the discovery is, is that the system, the solar system, is only 100 light years away from us. Right? Which means that intelligent life that’s there might be able to eavesdrop on radio shows from the 1920s here on Earth, right?

RACHEL FELTMAN: It’s true. Well, and so all of the planets that they spotted which are what we call sub-Neptune. They’re a little bit smaller than Neptune. And they’re orbiting a star that’s just a little bit dimmer than our star. They’re all outside of the habitable zone. It’s basically like the entire range of planets is within the range of mercury in our solar system. But it’s possible there are other planets further out in their solar system that are habitable. And James Webb might be peeking over to try to suss that out soon.

IRA FLATOW: I Love Lucy is on its way to them also. Let’s go to one of my favorite stars in the night sky. And it’s going, I understand to disappear for 12 seconds next week. Whoo!

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes. Betelgeuse is the 10th brightest star in the sky. And it’s going to briefly blink out of view on either December 11th or December 12th, depending on where you are. It’ll only be visible in this really narrow path. But there will be some live streams from the virtual telescope project in Italy. So people all over the world can check it out. It’s what’s called an occultation, where an asteroid just happens to pass in exactly the right way to just block this very bright star from view.

IRA FLATOW: And scientists love when this happens, right? They can learn stuff from it?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, whenever a celestial body is passing in front of a star and we know it’s going to happen, we can look at it and based on how the light changes, we can infer a bunch of stuff about both of those bodies, about the star and about the asteroid. So yes, scientists are very excited. And I guess you have to say the star’s name three times to make it come back. And if not, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

IRA FLATOW: Or watch the movie or something like that. Let’s bring it back home for the last space story. And I’m talking about apparently a dwarf planet, the dwarf planet Eris in our solar system is a little squishy. What does that mean?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. I really love this one, Ira. Eris it’s named for the Greek goddess of Discord, because when it was first spotted it looked like it was a little bigger than Pluto and that started the whole debate that led to Pluto’s demotion. They are, in fact, almost perfect twins. But unlike Pluto which we know from its flyby, is like a really respectable little planet with lots of interesting activity going on, Eris it turns out is maybe pretty squishy.

IRA FLATOW: What does that mean, squishy?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. These new models using data from radio telescopes in Chile, basically infer that there’s heat left over from when the dwarf planet was created that like the rocks inside are still radioactive enough that they’re creating this heat. And they think it’s oozing and might make the icy surface of the planet flex. It flows a little bit. The scientists have compared it to a soft cheese. It sounds like it’s maybe like a ball of fondue cheese covered in shaved ice is the picture I’m getting.

IRA FLATOW: The Camembert model here.


IRA FLATOW: And can they learn something about our own planet or our solar system from this?

RACHEL FELTMAN: You know, I’m not sure anyone has made that connection yet. But we always love to learn more about how planet formation can go, and how the planetary body can evolve. So the fact that this little dwarf planet which is so cold because it’s 68 times farther away from the sun than Earth, might have enough internal heat to keep it kind of roiling is certainly fascinating.

IRA FLATOW: I love the cheese analogy. Let’s come back down here to Earth a bit. A plastic bag recycling effort has not worked out as promised. Tell us about that, please.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So about 20 years ago, this online recycling directory for plastic bags started up, the Film Drop-off Directory. And six months ago, an ABC News investigation found that this directory which listed like 18,000 store drop-off locations where you could supposedly drop your plastic bags, get them recycled. They put trackers on a bunch of bags, and most of them did not end up getting recycled. A lot ended up in landfills. Some got sent to overseas facilities that don’t handle plastic bag recycling at all.

So the website itself was just a directory. And this was a place where brands like Target and Walmart had claimed that they were going to facilitate this recycling. And so now six months later, the website has been taken down because the people who were creating it say this is basically at this point just supporting greenwashing. Because this was really misleading for people.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Let’s finally move on to the magazine Popular Science was effectively shuttered a couple of weeks ago. I know you used to work for them, and you’re still doing podcasting with the company. But this is really a huge loss of science journalism. So many of us grew up with Popular Science.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, I grew up with Pop Sci too and it was such an honor to get to work on the print magazine. It has a 151-year history. I was so psyched to be there and be executive editor for the 150th anniversary. And of course, the magazine went digital a while ago. So the brand has evolved before, and it will evolve again, I hope. But it’s definitely it is a blow.

IRA FLATOW: I mean it’s a 151 years of publication.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, yeah. Well like you said, the hope is that the podcast I host for Pop Sci, The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week, is going to get to continue in 2024. So I hope if folks are feeling nostalgic, they will check it out. Because it really is keeping the spirit of Pop Sci alive.

IRA FLATOW: You know, is it following the trend of just other magazines that are shutting down? Or is there a reason having to do with science that it covers? Any idea on that?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Oh, I really have no idea about that, Ira. But media is a tough industry these days, unfortunately. So I definitely encourage listeners to go out of their way to support the news outlets that they really value.

IRA FLATOW: Rachel, thank you very much and good luck to you.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Rachel Feltman, host of the podcast Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.

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About D. Peterschmidt

D. Peterschmidt is a producer, host of the podcast Universe of Art, and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.

About Flora Lichtman

Flora Lichtman was the host of the podcast Every Little Thing. She’s a former Science Friday multimedia producer.

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