Residents of Los Angeles have a saying: "Never trust air you can't see". When you think of air pollution or smog you think of LA or major cities in the northeastern US. But an historic, early-summer outbreak of wildfires across Canada (the result of record heat in May and a swarm of lightning strikes) continues to belch thick smoke southward into Minnesota and Wisconsin. Yesterday's Air Quality Index from eastern Minnesota and Wisconsin to Chicago was some of the worst on the planet.

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency today is the 24th Air Quality Alert, breaking the old record of 21 in 2021. The average is 2-3 alerts in a season. Good grief.

Some of the worst air on Earth in MN and WI. Credit: IQair
Some of the worst air on Earth in MN and WI on Tuesday. Credit: IQair
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I'm happiest when Mother Nature isn't trying to kill me. We have a pretty idea what to do for severe thunderstorms, lightning, blizzards and even floods, but how do we protect ourselves and our families from thick wildfire smoke, which on the worst days, can be the rough equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day? Step one is knowing where the smoke is and where it's going.

View from space. Credit: CSPP GeoSphere
View from space. Credit: CSPP GeoSphere
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Tracking Smoke: Sometimes you can get a jump on wildfire smoke by checking out the latest satellite image or animated "loop". The image above is from yesterday, and you can see how smoke has a different appearance than clouds. One of the tools I use is CSPP GeoSphere, and you might want to bookmark this free tool so you can see what's about to drift into the Northland.

Current Air Quality Index. Credit: IQair.com
Current Air Quality Index. Credit: IQair.com
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Air Quality Mapping Option 1: I'm a big fan of IQair, which not only gives you the current AQI (Air Quality Index) for your town, but also a map to get a better sense of where the worst air is - and where it's going. You can also track the trends and see if AQI is getting better or worse over time.

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EPA map of air quality. Credit: AirNow
EPA map of air quality. Credit: AirNow
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Air Quality Mapping Option 2: The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) also as a suite of AirNow tools to track and better understand air quality, from wildfire smoke and traditional sources of air pollution.

Current air quality in your town. Credit: AirNow
Current air quality in your town. Credit: AirNow
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Air Quality Index for Your Hometown. For a quick and dirty update on AQI for your zip code you can't do any better than the EPA's AirNow site. Click here for the latest reading for your zip code.

Air Quality Index. Credit: AirNow
Air Quality Index. Credit: AirNow
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Keeping Our Kids Safe. So what does it all mean? What actions should I take? Moderate air (AQI under 100 or "yellow") means conditions are generally safe to be outside. When the AQI is between 100 and 150 ("orange"), sensitive groups should exercise caution, including kids with asthma and older adults with respiratory or heart conditions. The red zone (150 to 200) means unhealthy for everyone, and outdoor activity - especially strenuous exercise - should be avoided. Anything in the 200-400 "purple or maroon" range means air is hazardous for everyone, and people are encouraged stay indoors and even wear masks where appropriate, according to EPA's AirNow site.

It will probably be like this, off and on, through the rest of the summer. Fires in Canada show no signs of letting up anytime soon. Take it easy out there, especially on the thick smoke days with an AQI above 100. Stay indoors if the AQI goes above 200.

One thing is certain. None of us will ever take a "blue sky" day for granted again.

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