Waking up Saturday morning, my window blinds glowed with a ghoulish yellow thanks to the blanket of wildfire smoke that was smothering Washington, Oregon and California. I rolled over and went back to sleep for an hour. Our family made it through the weekend with board games, a lot of pie, “The Office” reruns, the entertainment value of a new kitten and, most importantly, the promise of clearer skies by mid-Monday.
So WTF is going on out there right now? More smoke.
The folks over at Washington Smoke blog — a consortium of state, county and federal agencies as well as Indian Tribes — explained how the forecasts went wrong.
The researchers look at models run from a bunch of different sources to try to understand how weather and smoke will collide. And one of the models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was a bit too rosy. The High Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR) from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory predicted clearing air while others projected a bleaker, and as it turns out a more accurate, continuation of smoke.
A chart of compiled projections by the University of Washington shows the HRRR prediction in bright green, while the average (in black) is less cheerful.
And the predictions weren’t just off by a day or two. The revised forecast has us stuck with the smoke until Thursday or Friday when there are predictions of strong westerly winds and possibly some rain. In this case, the experts say “every model shows a big clearing event on Friday.”
Early morning air quality readings. Most places very unhealthy or hazardous. Not posting latest smoke model run with model underestimating current smoke in the region. System offshore weakening today. Lesser chances for showers and lighter winds = little smoke improvement. #wawx pic.twitter.com/1s6OPmozaa
— NWS Seattle (@NWSSeattle) September 14, 2020
One potential plus is the air doesn’t smell so awful or look as yellow, though it’s still very polluted.
Washington Ecology Department’s Farren Herron-Thorpe explained why on the Washington Smoke blog: “Moisture in the air likes to condense around smoke particles, making a foggy soup. All that fog doesn’t let through the red/orange light. When moisture mixed with aged smoke, it certainly doesn’t smell like smoke anymore since it has chemically changed, but there is still particulate in the air.”
And if the smoky conditions have seemed off-the-charts terrible to you, they literally have been. Ecology officials reported on Sunday that the monitors were getting air pollution readings so high that the system figured it was a malfunction and chucked the data.
“We’ve just convinced the algorithm to come to terms with the bitter truth and these data should start to appear on the above map shortly. Ecology’s monitoring data dotmap has been current, however,” wrote Ranil Dhammapala, an atmospheric scientist with Ecology.
Puget Sound Clean Air Agency says air quality will remain in the “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” ranges from Monday til Friday.
Readers of the Washington Smoke blog praised its authors for their sense of humor, clear explanations and ability to soften the blow of all the bad news. Another good source for real-time pollution levels worldwide is found at Purple Air. GeekWire shared tips for staying safe and an explanation for why wildfires are getting worse.
But some still struggled to process the sentence of more time stuck inside and dangerous conditions outdoors. Did we mention there’s a pandemic in full force as well?
Perhaps blog reader MrMyu said it best as he confronted Monday morning’s reality: “That actually gave me a feeling akin to hearing that Christmas was cancelled. *sigh*. Right, back to the drawing board.”