Climate change is globally disrupting weather patterns and causing severe rainstorms, hurricanes, droughts, and other extreme weather conditions. These conditions can, in turn, play a complex role in impacting both air quality and human health.
Greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, methane and other gases – are causing average temperatures to rise worldwide. These greenhouse gases act like a blanket wrapping the earth and trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Scientists say this trend will continue—and worsen—unless action is taken to reduce the global use of fossil fuels for electricity, transportation, and industry.
Climate change means a warmer world
In the last 100 years, average temperatures worldwide have increased about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit. This increase may not seem large, but it has already had an enormous impact on weather and air quality worldwide. By examining tree rings, lake and marine sediment, ice cores, and other data, scientists determined that the three decades from 1983 to 2012 were the warmest in the last 1,400 years (1). In the coming 100 years, temperatures could rise as much as another 11.5 degrees, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2).
While some areas of the world are receiving record rainfall, other areas are experiencing record droughts, including the Western United States and Europe. Droughts, along with the hot temperatures and dry conditions that cause them, increase the frequency of wildfires.
Abnormal weather patterns affect air quality
Researchers have published more than 170 studies on the role of human-induced climate change on 190 extreme weather events (3). The increasingly common occurrences of extreme weather, such as severe thunderstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes, can have a major impact on air quality and the health of those living in affected areas.
A significant, cooling rain can make the air feel fresher. But do thunderstorms help reduce air pollution? In some ways, they can – and in other ways, a thunderstorm can play a role in creating air pollution.
If the air is stagnant in a region, lingering air pollutants can accumulate and build up in high concentrations. But when turbulent high winds accompany thunderstorms, those concentrations of air pollutants can be more widely dispersed. The result is cleaner outdoor air.
On the other hand, lightning can adversely affect air quality. Air pollutants from lightning are produced through chemical reactions in the air. Lightning is a source of natural nitric oxide (NO) production. Lightning bolts contain rapidly heated and cooled gases, resulting in nitric oxide. When NO is further oxidized, it can then produce nitrogen dioxides (NO2). The chemical mix of NO2 and NO can further result in ozone (O3) (4).
In this way, ground-level ozone, or smog, can be slightly elevated by lightning strikes.
Lightning strikes can play a significant role in indirectly causing air pollution during wildfire season. When conditions are arid and hot, a lightning storm can spark a fire by striking dry foliage. That was the case in May 2022 when numerous surrounding wildfires in the forests and tundra of Alaska sharply worsened air quality in Fairbanks.
As our planet warms, lightning strike wildfires and brushfires in remote, tinderbox regions could become more frequent.
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Lightning is not as common in a hurricane as in other severe weather events, but hurricanes do mean extremely powerful winds and rain. In this case, rain and standing water following a hurricane could be a serious problem for homeowners.
Flooding after both storms and hurricanes can lead to mold on and inside of building walls. Hurricane Sandy flooded tens of thousands of homes and business in New Jersey, causing a widespread mold problem and respiratory symptoms among storm survivors (5). Homes in the region were left unremediated for months and years afterwards.
Learning from their previous experiences fighting mold and persistent coughs, New Jersey and New York residents didn’t wait – they overwhelmed mold remediation companies with requests for remediation following Hurricane Ida in 2021.
Scientific research is still defining the exact relationship between climate change and tornadoes. However, current research suggests that tornado concentration and range outside of the United States Midwest’s “Tornado Alleys” may be expanding (6).
Tornadoes are defined by extreme high winds; most of the immediate air quality impact would be from PM2.5 and PM10 debris. Sand and dust will be blown around by tornadoes, the largest of which, PM10, may be visible. PM 2.5 – particles measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter – are the more dangerous, as they remain suspended in the air longer and, when breathed in, can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
PM2.5 is associated with cardiac and respiratory disease.
Buildings destroyed by tornadoes could result in cancer-causing asbestos entering the atmosphere (7). This is less of a concern in new buildings, but asbestos can be commonly found in buildings constructed before 1980.
In addition to high winds, tornadoes may be accompanied by heavy rain, hail, and lightning, with its associated potential for air pollution.
During any extreme weather event, power plant outages could have a temporarily impact on both indoor and outdoor air quality. Why? When power is out, homes and businesses are unable to consume energy from coal-burning power plants, nor can they run furnaces or appliances. On the other hand, burning candles, lighting fireplaces, and running outdoor generators can all contribute to either indoor or outdoor air pollution.
Given that air purifiers may not be running in those circumstances, wearing a KN95/FFP2 mask is a solution for reducing immediate exposure to pollutants.
Human-induced global warming is linked to extreme weather events, and these events adversely affect air quality.
Climate experts say only a major change in the way individuals consume energy will slow or stop the warming trend—and ultimately help improve air quality harmed by extreme weather. The most important step a person can take to fight global warming is to reduce personal energy consumption. Here are some actions that can help:
- Choose renewable energy. In many regions, consumers can choose energy suppliers that generate power from wind, solar and other clean sources. Check with your local power company for your options.
- Drive less. Taking public transportation, carpooling, and walking or biking whenever possible will result in less pollution and fewer greenhouse gases as a result of your personal transportation.
- Drive a high-mileage car. Hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars dramatically cut oil consumption and help reduce greenhouse gases (8).
- Weatherize your home or apartment. Heating and cooling a home or apartment consumes about 40% of all the energy used in a home. Weatherizing a home against drafts reduces energy usage by up to 20%.
- Use the thermostat wisely. Reduce energy costs and cut greenhouse gas production by turning the thermostat up in summer (air conditioning) and down in winter (heating).