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Scientists in the Adirondack Mountains monitor Canadian wildfire smoke


Smoke from Canadian wildfires continues to blanket much of the Northeast. The air quality is so poor that some school districts are canceling doing stuff outdoors. Officials in New York are scrambling to distribute a million N95 masks. NPR's Brian Mann traveled to a mountain research station where scientists are watching this crisis unfold.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Scott McKim walks up a path in New York's Adirondack Mountains, just south of the U.S.-Canada border.

SCOTT MCKIM: This is our sensor field. So it's a little clearing within the wider forest.

MANN: If this were a disaster movie, McKim would be out of central casting - a lanky scientist in a hoodie and blue jeans. As a meteorologist with the University at Albany, he's helped maintain these antennas and sensor arrays for nearly a decade.


MANN: Intake tubes suck in air, tasting for pollutants. And most days, McKim says they barely register.

MCKIM: Overall, the air is super clean here.

MANN: But as wildfires exploded across the border in Quebec, the first plumes of smoke swirled south on Saturday. Everything surged - black carbon, carbon monoxide, particulates.

MCKIM: So this is pretty unprecedented. We haven't seen these spikes in the data in our historical record.

MANN: As the numbers rose, McKim says the sky changed.

MCKIM: Eerie, I guess, is what I would call it. Any kind of shadow on the ground had an orange tinge to it.

MANN: McKim takes me inside the monitoring station, and he points to a real-time satellite map tracking the latest smoke plumes.

MCKIM: All of this muted gray color covering western New York...

MANN: The smoke is so dense, researchers think it's actually suppressing rainfall in this area, which is already drought-stricken. The smoke blocked so much sunlight, McKim says, it cooled the earth, disrupting expected weather patterns.

MCKIM: Because of that, we've seen very little of the predicted rain.

MANN: It's wrenching to think this beautiful, dry forest could burn, too, like the forests in Quebec. If this all feels hopeless, McKim points out this research project actually started because of another massive environmental threat.

MCKIM: In the 1970s, when this atmospheric monitoring station got ginned up, it was all because of acid rain and pollution.

MANN: McKim says science and public policy dramatically improved those problems. Now, he says, this mountain research outpost is on the front lines again.

Brian Mann, NPR News, in Wilmington, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.