‘Better to be inside’: Here’s why Kansas City’s air has been smoky lately

·5 min read

It would be best to stay indoors the next couple of days, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Kansas City said.

Plumes of smoke traveling from wildfires in the western parts of the United States and Canada are finding their way to Kansas City and other parts of the nation bringing poor air quality more than a thousand miles away from the blazes.

“If you can stay inside and stay out of the poor air quality, that’s the best you can do,” said Jonathan Kurtz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Kansas City. “If you have to work outside, pay attention. If you’re having to breathe a little bit heavier, feeling a little tight in the chest, maybe go inside and try to get some fresh air.”

(Here is how to protect yourself from wildfire smoke hanging over Kansas City).

The plumes of smoke have affected Kansas City’s air quality so much, the Mid-America Regional Council issued an Air Quality Alert for Monday and Tuesday, which was sent out by the weather service. The alert covers Leavenworth, Wyandotte and Johnson counties in Kansas and Platte, Clay and Jackson counties in Missouri.

“We’re experiencing a lot of haziness in our atmosphere which is a result of smoke actually coming down from Canada as the main culprit,” said Karen Clawson, Air Quality Program Manager at MARC. “There’s a lot of wildfires going around the country of course, but we’re seeing the kind of weather patterns dropping that smoke down into our area. It’s impacting not just our region, but all the states to the north of us as well.”

Because it’s smoke, there’s elevated particulate matter in the air on Monday as well as expected for Tuesday.

The tiny particles, called PM 2.5, are about 1/30th of the the width of human hair.

“Because it is microscopic, it very easily gets in our lungs when we breathe it in and it lodges itself,” Clawson said. “It can also move about through our bloodstream and cause a lot of problems.”

People at greater risk are those who already have respiratory issues or heart issues, such as asthma or heart disease, she said. It also has more impact on older adults and children.

“The best thing to do is just to monitor the air quality so if you see elevated air quality index values or you notice something in the air that seems a little bit different, it’s best to limit your outdoor exposure — so staying inside,” she said.

Certain types of masks, like an N95 mask, will help filter out the fine particulates, but the everyday cotton masks won’t necessarily help, she said. Those who are trying to protect themselves by wearing a mask should look for masks that can reduce PM 2.5 levels going into their lungs.

The current weather pattern is to blame for the smoke traveling to the area, said Kurtz with the weather service.

“The pattern we’re under right now is kind of a ridge of pressure over the western part of the United States and then as the air patterns have flowed down and flowed across the central part of the country, it’s bringing all that smoke with it down into our region,” Kurtz said. “It’s basically smothering the entire northern part of the Midwest and Upper Plains and Central Plains in kind of a haze of smoke.”

The plumes started as high altitude smoke but have slowly sunk to the surface in the Kansas City area, affected the air quality. The poor air quality should last through Tuesday, with it improving Wednesday as an easterly wind moves into the area, Kurtz said.

A frontal boundary is expected to move through the area Thursday into Friday, which could bring the chance for light showers as well as a change in winds to more of a southerly flow. That will help clear out the metro a little bit as the system moves through.

Last year, Kansas City saw its air quality affected by wildfires out west as well as a round of Saharan dust.

“It’s kind of a similar setup,” Kurtz said. “We had a little bit of dust getting pulled in from across the Atlantic Ocean and then the wildfire smoke mixing in with that. It’s been kind of a double-hitter here the last two summers with our air quality.”

Because of the particulates in the air, people can expect “big, red, kind of hazy” sunrises and sunsets, similar to last year.

“its kind of a little bit of a neat feature on top of kind of a hazardous weather situation with the air quality,” Kurtz said. “It is kind of a nifty byproduct of it.”

A motorcyclist is silhouetted against the setting sun Sunday in Shawnee. Sunsets have been more vibrant than normal recently as smoke from western wildfires drifts across the United States.
A motorcyclist is silhouetted against the setting sun Sunday in Shawnee. Sunsets have been more vibrant than normal recently as smoke from western wildfires drifts across the United States.

Clawson, with MARC’sAir Quality Program, said it’s hard to say if this will become a regular summertime concern.

“Our episodes with particulate matter pollution in the Kansas City region tend to be more event based,” she said. “So whether it’s controlled burns in the Foothills, or the Sahara dust layer, or these wildfires, we may see more of those over time, but it’s hard to predict.”

The western part of the United States has been facing prolonged extreme drought while other parts of the country have been seeing extreme temperatures caused by heat domes.

“You know these are hazards that are potentially exacerbated by climate change and could present kind of more air quality issues in our region,” she said. “Again, it’s hard to tell, but we should be prepared in case that does happen.”

While Kansas City’s main concern is ozone levels, it’s important that they think about other types of pollution like what is currently occurring, Clawson said.

She said people should stay informed by looking at their weather apps or buy going to MARC’s air quality page at https://airqkc.org/, or following https://twitter.com/airqkc on Twitter or https://www.facebook.com/AirQKC/ on Facebook.

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