Masks made a comeback in Wisconsin this week.
As smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed the state, health officials urged people to wear face coverings – previously worn en masse to reduce transmission of COVID-19 – if they had to spend time outdoors. This time, they blocked out smoke particles.
At Madison’s Pinney Library staff handed out N95 masks. The building was busy Wednesday, especially the children’s section, in part because poor air quality had caused the school district to cancel summer school and community recreation programs for the day.
“After COVID, this seems like another big thing that we haven’t experienced before,” said library page Nancie Cotter. “It’s almost a little scary.”
The lingering presence of wildfire smoke has made for an unusual start to summer across the Midwest. It also comes during a near-record drought crisping fields across the Corn Belt and the threat of hotter summers to come.
Many have thought of the region as a climate haven, rich with water resources and shielded from sea level rise and powerful hurricanes.
This summer is clouding that picture.
“When we think of both climate and air quality, we often think of it as something that happens to other people,” said Tracey Holloway, a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. “As climate changes, it’s changing everything for everyone.”
Smoke deluge catches people by surprise
Forecasters say a perfect storm of factors have caused the smoke to settle over the Midwest, including atmospheric conditions. The way Canada manages its wildfires also plays a part.
And the changing climate is bringing higher temperatures, periods of drought and more volatile winds that yield wildfires that burn faster and stronger than before. They also start earlier in the year.
The severity of the problem over the past month has been a shock to the public, curbing much-anticipated summer activities. In Minneapolis in mid-June, the city’s air quality was among the worst in the world. When another wave of smoke washed over the city at the end of the month, beaches around Cedar Lake – normally packed on summer afternoons – were deserted.
“In most people’s lifetimes, this is the worst it has been,” said Matt Taraldsen, who supervises a team of air quality forecasters and researchers at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Smaller smoke incursions from Canada in 2018 and 2021 gave forecasters indications of what was to come – but nothing compares to this summer. The only real analogue stretches back over a century, Taraldsen said, when a series of fires in 1918 ripped across northeastern Minnesota, roughly from Bemidji to Duluth.
Minnesota officials have been offering advice to colleagues in several surrounding states, which had not had the experience of warning the public in recent years about smoke, Taraldsen said. But even if Minnesota had a head start in refining its public communication, the actual predictions are posing a major technical challenge.
The American, Canadian, UK and European weather models used by forecasters don’t always show with fine detail how air is moving between different levels of the atmosphere, making it hard to guess whether choking smoke will be pushed to the ground, or held harmlessly aloft.
The smoke and its effects have surprised people. Mark Hayward, an arts performer from Madison, said he nearly had to cut short a yo-yo performance at the iconic Milwaukee music festival Summerfest because he couldn’t stop coughing.
“It’s nuts,” Hayward said. “I have family in southern California, but I never thought I’d have to deal with this in the Midwest.”
Experts say Midwest won’t be a climate ‘haven’
Though it’s not clear yet how much smoke the region will have to contend with in summers to come, other indicators of climate change are emerging.
“Weather whiplash,” as Wisconsin state climatologist Steve Vavrus described the events of the past six months, is one.
The Mississippi River flooded to near-record levels this spring. Now, much of the Midwest is gripped by drought, setting farmers on edge during the growing season.
In Illinois and Iowa, which together produce more than a quarter of the nation’s corn and soybeans, at least 90% of those plants face drought conditions. Arid conditions are expected to persist through September.
Climate models predict more extreme jumps like this between wet and dry periods, Vavrus said. Volatility is something the public will have to get used to.
Future summer temperatures are a little less certain. Although summers in the Midwest aren’t heating up as fast as other parts of the country, the region is still likely to see more extremely hot days. That will be exacerbated in places like Milwaukee, which suffers from the urban heat island effect, which happens when large cities hold in more heat than surrounding areas.
Cities around the Great Lakes are often floated as climate destinations – places where people imagine they’ll be safe from the worst impacts of the changing climate. In some senses, that will remain true. The lakes won’t dry up, wildfires don’t burn here like they do in California, and hurricanes that strike the south hard usually show up as just a little rain.
But the region isn’t immune. Anna Haines, who leads a subcommittee of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts focused on climate migration, said her group favors throwing out the term “haven” to describe Midwest climate.
“When you look up the definition, it’s a shelter, a refuge … a safe place,” said Haines, also the director of the Center for Land Use Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “We don’t think that is correct.”
Bennet Goldstein of Wisconsin Watch contributed to this story.
This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Wisconsin Watch is a member of the network. Sign up for our newsletter to get our news straight to your inbox.