Millions of people in the eastern United States and Canada received health warnings from environmental regulators as thick smoke from northern bushfires wafted through cities from Ottawa to New York.

Canada has been battling an active wildfire season with wildfires in most of its 10 provinces and territories for most of last month. Smoke from the wildfires wafted south through some of North America’s most populous cities this week.

New York’s air quality ranked Wednesday as the worst of any major urban area in the world, surpassing New Delhi, according to the IQAir World Air Quality Index.

New York residents have once again donned the masks they had recently abandoned as the Covid-19 emergency subsided. Schools have canceled outdoor activities and the city has urged vulnerable New Yorkers to stay inside and keep their windows closed.

Animation showing smoke from a wildfire in the eastern United States

Yesterday, New Yorkers saw and smelled something that had never hit us on this scale before, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Wednesday morning, noting that the event sent shockwaves throughout the city.

After easing Wednesday morning, New York officials predicted that conditions would deteriorate again into the afternoon and into the evening, calling it a multi-day event. The U.S. aviation regulator on Wednesday afternoon issued ground delays for flights to LaGuardia Airports in Philadelphia, Newark and New York, citing poor visibility for pilots.

Washington public schools also suspended outdoor activities for pupils as the city’s environmental regulator issued a Code Red air quality alert for the District of Columbia.

Canada’s environmental regulator has classified air quality in Ottawa, the country’s capital, as having the highest level of health risk. Large swathes of Quebec and Ontario have been subject to an air quality alert by Canadian authorities.

Smoke rises from fires in Quebec and Ontario in a satellite image

Smoke rises from fires in Quebec and Ontario in an AP satellite image

Smoke from wildfires in Montreal, Quebec

Smoke from wildfires in Montreal, Quebec Allen McInnis/Bloomberg

Earlier this spring, fires in Canada’s main oil-producing province of Alberta forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes and forced more than a dozen oil and gas companies to temporarily shut down or reduce operations.

More fires have now taken hold in the forests of eastern provinces such as Quebec and Nova Scotia. More than 400 wildfires have been active across Canada as of Wednesday, with about 4 million hectares burned so far this year, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

Scientists have observed that fires in the northern hemisphere’s boreal forests have increased in intensity over the past decade, with average temperatures across the planet’s north rising faster than near the equator due to global warming, such as snow reflective and the ice of the arctic has melted.

Fires north of the equator are generally becoming more frequent and intense as the planet warms and summers get hotter. May 2023 ranked globally as the second warmest May on record, according to the EU’s Copernicus Observation Service.

Heat records were broken in parts of Asia, particularly China and Vietnam, where unseasonably warm weather kicked in months earlier than the usual July and August summers. Parts of Siberia also set all-time records last week.

Sea surface temperatures were the highest on record for the month and have been at near record highs since March.

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