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Climate’s connection to wildfire air pollution and tech solutions that can emerge through the smoke

Updated: Jun 12, 2023


San Francisco under gloomy red skies caused by smoke from nearby fires by Christopher Michel
San Francisco under gloomy red skies caused by smoke from nearby fires by Christopher Michel (Creative Commons Image)

In case you haven’t noticed, the sky in New York, many parts of Canada, and the Northern U.S. is orange. Already, many have likened it and the bright red sun to the hazy horizon in the 2017 dystopian sci-fi film Blade Runner 2049 which is set in a smoky neon futuristic Los Angeles 26 years from now. In 2020, the same comparisons were made about California’s post-wildfire sky.


However, in many parts of the world, orange skies, hazy pollution, and toxic air have slowly crept into normalcy and the culprit is climate change.


In the case of NYC, the rusty sky and air quality that currently ranks worst in the world are a result of wildfires that raged across Canada, exacerbated by climate change-fueled heat waves.


Already, more than 8.7 million acres have burned through Canada in 2023. As ABC News reports, that’s more than 1400% of the usual amount of acres burned for this time of the year, as the wildfire season has yet to peak. The total scorched acreage is larger than the entire state of Vermont.


Because of the combination of heat, drought, and invasive insects leading to drier air and more dead trees, Canada’s natural resources agency says climate change could potentially double the amount of area burned by the end of this century. That spells bad news for air quality, as it riddles the air with so much particulate matter that experts say the health effects of breathing in the wildfire smoke-filled air are way worse than smoking a cigarette.

satellite imagery: Massive smoke plumes from fires over Canada
Massive smoke plumes from fires over Canada on May 20, 2023 (Image Credit: Pierre Markuse // Creative Commons Image)

But as the New York Times puts it, poor air quality like what New York is currently experiencing is routine in many parts of the world, especially poorer countries. NBC News New Dehli puts it even more bluntly, with the headline “From one 'toxic hell' to another,” where countries like India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, are regularly experiencing some of the worst air on the planet every day, with Beijing experiencing what was dubbed the “airpocalypse” in 2013.


The yellowy skies and acrid pollution are due to a variety of reasons that all have some connection to climate change whether it be ripening weather conditions for wildfires and agricultural fires, or polluting practices that further contribute to the crisis like fossil fuel, agricultural, transportation, and trash emissions.


As the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi-spinout Chakr Innovations puts it, there’s no “better place to start” improving the quality of air, and thereby life on Earth than India: “home to 10 of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world.”


Fossil fuel-riddled air causes 1 in 5 deaths annually, which on average represent 7 million premature deaths each year from both ambient air pollution and household air pollution, the World Health Organization reports.


This number may only rise with increased wildfire pollution. That’s why technology that targets air pollution within and outside of that caused by wildfire is very important.


As a Harvard University report shows, wildfires and urban pollution like nitrous oxide is a “deadly mix” that “can result in harmful levels of ozone,” not only further threatening the ozone layer that protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation and attempts to repair it but increasing concentration of pollutants are linked to respiratory illnesses.

orange smog overtakes a city
Image Credit: Peggy Anke // Unsplash

According to Chakr diesel generators contribute to 15-20% of total air pollution. However, emission control technology could reduce emissions by over 70%. That’s why they developed the Chakr Shield, which they claim is the world’s first retrofit emission control device for diesel generators.


And just like wildfire smoke, diesel emissions are full of carcinogens that can cause respiratory issues ranging from heart disease to lung cancer.


On top of improving the air quality, the startup’s device creates paint and ink to use out of the waste that the team calls POINK, aka pollution ink.


Another startup, Pluvo, is taking on the air pollution in London, where the haze is as normal as beans on toast. As Pluvo puts it, air pollution is an “invisible killer,” especially in a city where a normal day’s exposure to air is the “equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes.”


That’s why the startup, born out of the Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art, created the Pluvo Column, which is an air purification totem that can be installed in any urban space with access to power, that can act as the outdoor digital advertising signage you see when walking around the downtown of almost any major city.


According to the startup, the Pluvo Column breathes in the surrounding polluted air and purifies it via a “three-stage scrubbing process” that eliminates harmful airborne and targeted gasses like nitrous oxide, and even viruses with up to 99.5% efficiency.

the pluvo column with a bus zooming behind it
Pluvo Column (Image Credit: Pluvo)

Quite a few startups are also targeting air quality inside and outside like Infogrid, which in April raised $90 million for its AI-driven building monitoring tech, Carbon Reform which has a device that captures CO2 while purifying air inside buildings, and Canada’s WeavAir which measures multiple air purity metrics for air distribution systems.


While WeavAir launched in Toronto in 2018, since, it has expanded across the world to many places that need its insights most like Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Poland, as well as pilots in Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Spain, Portugal, and Chile. This year, the startup plans to expand to the United Arab Emirates.


Essentially, what WeavAir sells is software that diagnoses and prevents air hazards at a rate they claim is 200 times faster than other comparable solutions in the market.


Another startup that provides actional insights in Airly, but not only does the Palo Alto, London, and Krakow, Poland-based startup provide intelligence, and affordable sensors that track air quality in real-time.

Airly Air Sensor (Photo Credit: Airly)

According to the startup’s co-founder and CEO Wiktor Warchałowski said via TechCrunch, “On a macro scale, our data has repeatedly become an incentive to change local policy in terms of reducing the use of solid fuels, car traffic or influencing local polluters.” Adding on to this, the startup’s recent blog post details what that policy could look like.


In addition to monitoring the air (which New York already does) and deploying some of the above solutions, programs that fight local pollution might also include “creating car-free areas, funding green energy sources, or developing eco- and user-friendly public transportation,” they write.


There is a fleet of startups prepared to use tech to fight wildfires, restore land, and deal with the post-fire repercussions, but mitigating air pollution caused by wildfires and other factors is essential to keeping people safe from the damage. Because wildfire smoke and urban air pollution are a lethal combination, deploying further general anti-pollution solutions may be one of the best ways cities affected by Canada’s wildfire smoke can protect their residents.



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