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North Carolina’s air quality keeps changing. Here’s why.

 A map of North Carolina counties, with Central and Western regions colored orange to indicate a moderately concerning air quality on July 18.
State Climate Office of North Carolina and the North Carolina Division of Air Quality
A map of North Carolina counties, with Central and Western regions colored orange to indicate an air quality on July 18 that was unhealthy for some groups.

From moderate Code Yellow to hazardous Code Maroon alerts, the State Climate Office of North Carolina and state Division of Air Quality issue daily forecasts to tell residents when to limit time outdoors.

Shawn Taylor, a spokesperson for the NC Division of Air Quality, said smoke from the ongoing Canadian wildfires is worsening North Carolina’s air quality by increasing the amount of fine particulate matter. That matter is made up of harmful microscopic particles smaller than the width of human hair.

According to Taylor, children, older adults and people with heart and lung conditions are more vulnerable to health concerns caused by such particles. That’s why a Code Orange alert was issued Tuesday for most of North Carolina, cautioning those sensitive groups.

“Because the particles are so small, they can penetrate really deep in your lungs,” Taylor said. “They can even get into your bloodstream, and that can be associated with a range of symptoms from an elevated heart rate, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms just associated with smoke: a burning sensation in your eyes or a runny nose.”

To predict air quality, Taylor said meteorologists look to the Canadian wildfires for things like smoke generation and firefighting efforts, but an accurate local weather forecast can be crucial.

“Day-to-day, you and I probably won't notice the difference between, say, a three-mile-per-hour wind and an eight-mile-per-hour wind,” Taylor said. “But, that little difference is enough to determine, 'Maybe we're going to have a Code Yellow day or a Code Orange day.'”

Since the division’s air quality forecasts are averages, Taylor said even days with a Code Orange alert could still see moments with better or worse conditions.

“During that 24-hour period, we might have periods when it dips into Code Red, goes down to Code Yellow, but we're predicting that once you average that all out, it will be Code Orange,” he added.

Taylor recommended residents stay “air aware” by monitoring these dips in air quality throughout the day. With tools like weather apps, people can see real-time air quality to better plan their time outdoors.

Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.
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