Posted by: Josh Lehner | October 13, 2021

Unhealthy Air Quality Days on the Rise in Oregon

Our office is working on some research related to the economic impacts of climate change and natural disasters more broadly. This is something we have done in bits and pieces over the years when it comes to wildfires, ice storms, droughts, Cascadia risks and the like. I’m also working my way through the virtual seminars on climate economics from the San Francisco Fed. I’m unsure what the end result will be. We know we need to stay on top of the research. Ultimately I’m envisioning more of an anthology of shorter summaries of the different avenues of research, rather than a giant report, but we shall see.

Today I wanted to share a quick look at something that’s missing from some of the earlier research. This is not meant to criticize anything, but rather to show how some of the dynamics are evolving and impacting our lives already. First, here is a famous map of the expected impacts of climate change from University of Washington’s Cliff Mass. This screenshot comes from a presentation I gave back in 2015. It makes a pretty compelling argument — as does other research from a decade ago — that the Pacific Northwest will be impacted to a lesser degree than the rest of the country. It even tells a relatively benign story of climate change for us locally. And while those relative dynamics likely remain true, it does not mean we are immune.

Wildfires are the one thing that jumps out to me today about the map that didn’t years ago. They’re not on the map explicitly, and to the extent we think of heat waves and water issues contributing, the idea of fires on the western side of the Cascades was not given a lot of discussion in the literature. After all, it rains a lot in the Northwest. Again, this is no criticism of Dr. Mass nor the earlier research. It’s probably more of a personal failing of not reading enough of the research at the time. Even so, what our office is trying to do is make sense of the impacts we’re experiencing now. And then to try and articulate the risks and build them into our forecasts where appropriate.

Now, to be fair, fires and smoke are a relatively new phenomenon. At least in terms of duration, or the number of days per year. Sacramento State’s CapRadio had a really interesting look at the changes in smoke over time and how it impacts the entire country. As I’m piecing together these bits of research, I thought I would share some of these impacts here in Oregon. The table below shows the number of really bad air quality days as reported by the EPA (AQI>150). These are days where you don’t want to be outside. If you include days where it’s noticeable that something is wrong, it adds a dozen or two more days to the counts. Also note that the map above was originally published in 2014. Almost all of our bad smoke years have happened since then.

You can take any of these counties and look at them individually. Below is a chart for Jackson County (Medford MSA) in part because the smoke in southern Oregon has been bad in recent years, and in part it has been bad enough that they are working on retractable roof theaters for the Shakespeare Festival and the like. If you can only go outside 11 out of the 12 months in a year, smoke mitigation makes a lot more financial and social sense than if it’s only a day or two.

Finally, what are the risks and costs to smoke and air pollution more broadly? There are economic impacts related to destroyed properties, and people not venturing outside for activities or travel. There are clear health impacts when it comes to respiratory issues leading to increased hospitalization and asthma medications and the like, some of which are discussed in the CapRadio work. However as documented here, there are also cognitive issues too related to pollution. Wildfire smoke is pollution. Studies show that chess players and baseball umpires make more mental mistakes on polluted days compared to non-polluted days, for example. Repeated exposure over time can also lead to longer term impacts as well.

Anyway, thought this was worth sharing while we continue to chip away at the broader research agenda. Stay tuned in the months ahead for more.

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