How Does Wildfire Smoke Impact the Environment?

September 6, 2022

Discover the effects wildfire smoke can have on plants, animals, and the environment with expert guidance from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA).

smoke environment fire
Wildfires are a natural part of our ecosystems but there are many negative impacts of wildfire smoke on the environment.

The effects of wildfire smoke on human health are infamous.1 Smoke of all kinds, from wildfires to cigarettes, can worsen asthma, and cause tightness in the chest, dizziness, lightheadedness, and even lead to heart complications and asphyxiation.

However, the effects of wildfire smoke on the environment are less widely known. Just as smoke adversely impacts human health, it can also harm plants, animals, and the atmosphere.

In this article, we discuss the impact of wildfire smoke on the environment in terms of plant life, animal life, air quality, and climate change.

Wildfire Smoke and the Impact on Plants

Wildfires are a natural part of many landscapes. They can actually benefit plant life by burning up excess debris on the ground to allow new growth to emerge.2

Unfortunately, human interference with this cycle in the last few decades has caused the number of wildfire incidents to rise beyond natural levels. Manmade wildfires account for around 85% of wildfires in the United States every year.3

This means that plants, including grasses, shrubs, and even trees, are exposed to far more heat and smoke than under normal conditions. Smoke has the ability to block out sunlight and deprive plants of the exposure they need to complete photosynthesis and stay alive.

Scientists are still learning about the effects of wildfire smoke on plant life, however, one study published in 2020 suggested that smoke can actually increase photosynthesis in plants by scattering radiation from the sun deeper into forests than direct sunlight can.4

This is a hopeful sign in the short-term, but any potential benefit of smoke for plants is outweighed by the harm it causes to the rest of the environment, as well as the creatures who live in it.

Wildfire Smoke and the Impact on Animals

Wildfire smoke is equally detrimental to the health and well-being of non-human animals as it is to us. Smoke indiscriminately causes lung, throat, and mouth inflammation. Prolonged exposure can also cause animals to move more sluggishly, making it harder to escape if there is an active blaze.

For example, following a series of wildfires in Southeast Asia in 2015, researchers at the Tuanan Orangutan Research Station in Borneo noticed that a local group of orangutans moving more slowly than usual. After observing them and studying samples of their urine, the researchers concluded that the primates’ low energy was the result of an immune response to lung inflammation caused by nearby wildfire smoke.5

Wildfire smoke is also more dangerous to animals depending on the types of particulates it may be carrying. Research suggests that birds, in particular, are more sensitive to air pollutants than other animals, partly because they have a difficult time expelling foreign contaminants from their long tracheas.6

Unlike plant life, there are no benefits to animals inhaling wildfire smoke.

Wildfire Smoke Travels, With the Ability to Impact Climates Thousands of Miles Away

Another environmental issue posed by wildfire smoke is its ability to travel and impact areas that are located thousands of miles away.

If there is a large wildfire burning in a western state such as Oregon or California, the smoke has the potential to reach all the way to New York or other east coast states, nearly 3,000 miles away.7

As such, even if humans or animals live far away from a wildfire incident, they can still suffer from the effects of smoke exposure.

smoke effect environment
Wildfire smoke not only travels over many miles of land but also ascends high into the atmosphere.

Wildfire Smoke Can Travel High Into the Atmosphere, Affecting the Sun’s Rays

Not only does wildfire make it difficult for animals to breathe, it also travels high into the atmosphere, creating pollution and affecting incoming solar radiation.

A study conducted by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology revealed that brown carbon – a type of carbon produced by smoldering biological matter – appears in greater quantities in the upper atmosphere of our planet than scientists previously thought was possible.8

In the upper atmosphere, brown carbon has a “disproportionately large effect on the planetary radiation balance — much stronger than if it was all at the surface,” according to Georgia Institute of Technology professor Rodney Weber. This can create either colder or warmer temperatures. Ultimately, it could worsen climate change, which has already negatively impacted the environment and will only worsen with the continued burning of fossil fuels.  

One negative impact of climate change is longer and more intense wildfire seasons, like the kind we are seeing in the western United States. Increasing wildfire smoke leads to worsening climate change, which in turn leads to more wildfires. Thus, wildfire smoke is a vehicle for this devastating cycle to continue and become more extreme.

In conclusion, wildfire smoke is hazardous for all life forms on Earth. It can block sunlight, cause breathing issues and death in animals, travel thousands of miles, and even impact climate change in the upper atmosphere.

The best way to protect yourself from wildfire smoke is by being prepared.9 Have an evacuation plan in place, should wildfire smoke becomes an issue in your area. Advocating for societal action to address climate change, becoming knowledgeable about wildfire, and actively reducing your own carbon footprint are other ways to help reduce the risk of future wildfire incidents.

Sources

  1. WFCA, “What Effects Do Wildfires Have on Humans and Animals?” Accessed August 28, 2022.
  2. WFCA, “Effects of Wildfires on the Environment.” Accessed August 28, 2022.
  3. National Park Service, “Wildfire Causes and Evaluations.” Accessed August 28, 2022.
  4. JGR Biogeosciences, “Wildfire-Smoke Aerosols Lead to Increased Light Use Efficiency Among Agricultural and Restored Wetland Land Uses in California’s Central Valley.”Accessed August 28, 2022.
  5. Scientific Reports, “Wildfire smoke impacts activity and energetics of wild Bornean orangutans.” Accessed August 2022.
  6. Science That Matters, “What Scientists Know About Wildfire Smoke and Its Impact On Wild Animal Health.” Accessed August 28, 2022.
  7. NPR, “The Western Wildfires Are Affecting People 3,000 Miles Away.” Accessed August 28, 2022.
  8. NASA, “Smoke from wildfires can have lasting climate impact.” Accessed August 29, 2022
  9. WFCA, “How to Protect Yourself From Wildfire Smoke.” Accessed August 29, 2022.

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