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Bad air ahead? Smoky haze likely to return to Minnesota in 2022

State meteorologists say nearby Canada remains dry, increasing the chance of fires there.

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The Minnesota sun is subdued by smoky haze from Canadian wildfires in this 2018 photo.
Alexandria Echo Press file photo
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Remember last summer's nasty haze and choking air?

State meteorologists say it was unprecedented for Minnesota, and are closely watching weather patterns and moisture maps to try to predict whether we're in for a repeat this year.

“2021 was historic,” said Matt Taraldsen, one of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency meteorologists who held an April 26 news conference to discuss air quality. The agency has been issuing air quality alerts since 2011.

“What was kind of astounding was that some areas of the state were under an air quality for almost 30 days consecutively,” he said. “This is the only the second time we have alerted the entire state in an air quality alert and the first time we’ve done it for multiple days.”

The Arrowhead region north of Duluth had 29 days and 9 hours of air quality alerts, he said.

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Minnesota's bad air in 2021 was largely the result of Canadian fires that were burning at the same time that an air mass was moving south from Canada into Otter Tail County, the meteorologists said. The fires caused more problems for Minnesota than did western wildfires because western smoke has to cross the Rocky Mountains before heading east, and often stays aloft without creating ground-level smoke that makes people cough.
So will Minnesota see bad air again in 2022?

There'll probably be a few bad days, said meteorologist Nick Witcraft.

Canada's prairie provinces and western Ontario are predicting an above normal fire season, he said.

“We’ll probably see a few days with impactful smoke,” he said. “Hopefully not as impactful as last season, but we can expect to see a few days with more smoke.”

The practice in Canada used to be to extinguish fires immediately, but that resulted in bigger, more intense fires, complicated by homes being built in remote areas, said meteorologist Daniel Dix. So extinguishing fires immediately might result in better air quality in the south but still might not be the best practice, he said.

In response to a question, he said that there's a growing case to be made that bad air quality is connected to climate change, but cautioned that it could also be influenced by cyclical weather patterns.

"I think that argument is starting to have a stronger backing," he said.

He said Minnesota will benefit from NASA's TEMPO pollution sensing satellite scheduled for launch later this year. That satellite will provide his agency with more air quality data. He also said that the state is planning to install more air quality sensors throughout the state, including in remote areas.

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994, and was driven by curiosity to work her way around the United States.
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