Wildfire smoke from the far northwestern reaches of Canada created hazy conditions throughout Palm Beach County Tuesday, reducing visibility and triggering an air quality alert from health officials.
The smoke, which is traveling on the clockwise swirl of winds from an area of high pressure over the Mid-Atlantic region, could remain through early Wednesday before pushing into the Gulf of Mexico.
Florida experienced some of the heaviest concentrations of smoke Tuesday — and a spike in unhealthy air quality that ranked the worst in the country — because it was getting a direct firehose of north and northeasterly winds from the high pressure. Areas of the country closer to the center of the high didn't get as much smoke.
Brett Anderson, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather, said it was a surprise that the smoke made it all the way to Florida from fires burning in British Columbia and Alberta.
"It's very unusual," Anderson said. "I started seeing it going south and I didn't think it would get to Florida, but it maintained itself."
AirNow Interactive Map
An overnight inversion ? where the ground cools faster than the air above it ? exacerbated the early Tuesday haze, said National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Garcia.
An inversion, which is also a cause of fog, usually happens on clear nights when the land becomes cooler than the air a few thousand feet up. Air typically cools with height, so when the air high up is warmer, it acts like a lid to trap moisture, and smoke, near the ground.
"That smoke just got transported in the upper atmosphere down here, and it's one of those mornings where people are going to experience patches of lower visibility," Garcia said early Tuesday. "We've been keeping an eye on it through the overnight hours, and it's something folks should watch for."
Canada struggled with wildfires throughout the summer, and scores still burn out of control, including in the Northwest Territories and the Northeast provinces of Quebec and Ontario.
In mid-September, CTV News reported that some wildfires may burn until regular snowfall returns.
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"We will need to adapt to living with fire," CTV quoted Shane Thompson, minister of environment and climate change for the Northwest Territories of the country as saying. "It's very likely these fires will need to be managed till snowfall."
At Palm Beach International Airport early Tuesday, sustained winds were blowing east-northeast at 17 mph with gusts to 25 mph. Garcia said that should have helped clear the skies closer to the coast.
Still, at 10 a.m. Tuesday, the air quality near downtown West Palm Beach was in the "unhealthy" range according to AirNow.gov. That's the fourth level of concern on a six-level scale and means that some people may experience detrimental health effects from the smoke.
By 1:30 p.m., the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County issued a reminder that the air quality was in a range that was "unhealthy to sensitive groups."
Jose De Olazabal, a pulmonologist on staff at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center, said some of his patients with respiratory problems called his office with concerns about the smoke.
"They could see it with the naked eye, it was pretty impressive," De Olazabal said. "A couple of patients noticed it (Monday). They had already felt symptoms of coughing and congestion."
De Olazabal said for people with no health problems, an "unhealthy" rating on the air quality index will cause few problems. But people with asthma or COPD should avoid going outside. The smoke, which can carry particulate matter and add sulfur dioxide to the air, is also a concern for those with heart problems.
"People with cardiovascular disease tend to experience worsening events like heart failure and arrhythmia," he said. "If something is stressing your lungs, it can potentially stress your heart or even your kidneys."
Areas more inland where the wind was blowing at just 7 mph were hazier. Clewiston had visibility of just 3 miles early Tuesday, Garcia said.
"It's one of those things where if you aren't expecting it, it can certainly give you a bit of a surprise," he said. "Folks should take precautions. Use your low beans and give yourself extra time to reach your destination."
Kimberly Miller is a veteran journalist for The Palm Beach Post, part of the USA Today Network of Florida. She covers real estate and how growth affects South Florida's environment. Subscribe to The Dirt for a weekly real estate roundup. If you have news tips, please send them to [email protected]. Help support our local journalism, subscribe today.