Feb 21, 2024 - News

The Triangle's air-quality could worsen because of climate change

Estimated days with unhealthy air quality, 2024
Data: First Street Foundation; Note: Maximum count of days with unhealthy air quality from anywhere within each county; Map: Axios Visuals

Harmful air quality days in Wake County are expected to increase over the next 30 years, Axios Generate's Andrew Freedman reports from new research.

  • Based on current climate conditions, there will be an estimated 2 days with an air quality index (AQI) of 100 or higher in 2024, compared to three in 2054, per a new report from the nonprofit First Street Foundation.
  • Locally, Orange, Johnston and Chatham counties are expected to see similar increases, while Durham is forecasted to remain roughly the same.

The big picture: After decades of progress in the U.S. toward cleaner air, climate change-related extreme events will cause a steady nationwide deterioration through 2054.

The intrigue: The Triangle's air quality has actually improved over the past decade.

  • But an increase in large wildfires in the West, along with heat waves and drought, are already yielding a growing "climate penalty" to air quality, the report finds.

Flashback: Last summer's Canadian wildfires, for example, spread all along the East Coast, causing AQI levels of more than 150 in parts of the Triangle.

Yes, but: The effects of this penalty are not evenly distributed around the country, however, and North Carolina's air quality will not worsen as much as other states.

  • The West Coast — specifically Washington, Oregon and California — is projected to see the biggest increase in days with air quality indices above 100.

How it works: The report uses a new, hyperlocal air quality model showing shifts down to the property level between 2024 and 2054.

  • Its conclusions flow from methods contained in three peer-reviewed studies published by the coauthors. (The report itself is not peer reviewed.)

What they found: The study finds that climate change is increasing the prevalence of two of the air pollutants most harmful to human health: particulate matter (commonly referred to as PM2.5), and tropospheric ozone.

  • PM2.5 are tiny particles emitted by vehicles, power plants, wildfires and other sources. They can get lodged in people's lungs and enter the bloodstream, causing or exacerbating numerous health problems.

Threat level: Future projections estimate a continued increase in PM2.5 levels by nearly 10% nationally over the next 30 years, Jeremy Porter, head of climate implications at First Street, tells Axios.

  • That would "completely" erase air quality gains made in the last two decades, he says.

The bottom line: "The climate penalty associated with the rapidly increasing levels of air pollution is perhaps the clearest signal we've seen regarding the direct impact climate change is having on our environment," Porter tells Axios.

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