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Chart showing smoke hours for Edmonton and Calgary
The Weather Network

Smoke Signals Trouble: Alberta’s Hazy Summer in Numbers

Alberta faced an unprecedented haze, with smoke hours reaching historic highs, raising grave health and climate concerns

According to Environment Canada, this year, Edmonton and Calgary surpassed their previous records for “smoke hours” that were set in 2018.

And no, we’re not talking about ‘sparking a spliff’ here but about wildfire smoke. 

Photo: The Weather Network

A smoke hour is defined as when the haze from smoke becomes so thick that visibility is reduced to 9.7 kilometres (6.0 miles) or less. 

In 2018, Edmonton recorded 229 smoke hours between May and September, while Calgary recorded 450. 

This year, as of September 5, Environment Canada reported 266 smoke hours for Edmonton and 499 for Calgary. The numbers are expected to rise once the final data for the year is analysed.

This makes it the smokiest summer in over 70 years of data collection, except maybe if you are obsessed with Alberta-born Tommy Chong’s 1978 escapade with Cheech, “Up in Smoke.”

Cold Lake and Grande Prairie also set new records this year, with 523 and 625 smoke hours, respectively.

Meanwhile, Peace River has recorded a whopping 644 smoke hours, meaning the city has spent one of every five days since May 1 shrouded in thick smoke.

Most of us don’t need official records to tell us what our eyes and lungs have experienced all spring and summer this year! 

It was a crazy summer of smoke.

Health Impacts

Prolonged exposure to smoke pollution has significant health implications. 

A report by the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) highlighted that breathing in polluted air, especially fine particulate matter (PM2.5) like smoke and dust, can reduce global average life expectancy by 2.3 years. 

This life expectancy reduction is even more than the reduction caused by tobacco use, which is 2.2 years. 

We don’t have data on cannabis use yet.

Calgary on July 23, 2023. Photo: The Weather Network

The fine particles are so small that they can penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the circulatory system. Long-term exposure can lead to lung disease, respiratory issues, and cardiovascular problems, including strokes and heart attacks. 

Vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, children, and pregnant individuals, are at a higher risk.

The impact of smoke pollution is not just limited to health. It also contributes to climate anxiety, especially as the frequency and intensity of wildfires increase due to a changing climate. 

The smoky conditions forced many residents to cancel outdoor plans and stay indoors. 

Many of us have spent much less time outdoors during this summer than in the past. It was like a repeat of COVID isolation, but wildfire smoke was the culprit this time!

The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), developed by Health Canada, rated the air pollution in both Edmonton and Calgary in early September as “high risk,” indicating significant health dangers for those exposed.

Forest fire smoke. Photo: The Weather Network

They recommend that those experiencing symptoms like shortness of breath, wheezing, severe cough, dizziness, or chest pains should seek medical attention. It’s also advised to stay indoors, keep the indoor air clean, and, if necessary, wear a well-fitted respirator-type mask when outdoors.

The increasing number of smoke hours and the associated health risks underscore the urgent need for action on climate change and forest management. 

As wildfires become more frequent and intense, cities like Edmonton and Calgary must prepare for smokier summers ahead, emphasizing the importance of mitigation and adaptation strategies.

The record-breaking smoke hours in Edmonton and Calgary are a stark reminder of the interconnectedness of climate, health, and well-being. 

As the world grapples with the challenges of a changing climate, it’s crucial to prioritize the health and safety of communities, especially in regions prone to natural disasters like wildfires.

Even Cheech and Chong would agree!

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