Nomeites were left scratching their heads this summer, as they — and a vast swath of the Norton Sound region — woke up to a town blanketed in smoke. But, there was no known fire anywhere even close.

“It’s like you’re in a wood stove, that’s what this was like,” said climatologist Rick Thoman, who works at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.

The hospital in Nome measured an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 701 at about 9:30 a.m – an all-time record for Nome. The scale, which places normal air quality below 50, labels any measurement above 300 as “hazardous”. “This was way up in wretched air quality,” Thoman said, calling it “a health warning of emergency conditions”.

Staff from Nome Joint Utilities and Norton Sound Health Corporation remount Nome’s air quality monitor at KNOM. Photo by Davis Honey, KNOM (2022).

As wildfires are a known part of Alaska’s ecosystem, smoke itself is not too uncommon in Alaska, but this time there was no known fire within several hundred miles. Thoman said the smoke on July 1 came from a fire near Lake Iliamna outside of Dillingham, more than 400 miles from Nome. Several factors came together to create conditions where smoke could travel that far: the smoke being trapped in very dry air close to the ground, extremely hot fires that burned strong for several days, and a cap of air pressure at less than 5,000 feet in the atmosphere.

While the smoke raged on, businesses closed and flights were canceled. Fortunately, the smoke cleared out of Western Alaska by the next morning and air quality returned to normal.

A week later, health corporation staff and utility staff re-installed an air quality monitor – on KNOM’s roof. The partnership will allow anyone with internet access to check Nome air quality for free. It also aids the State of Alaska in data collection for public health.

Smoke of this severity level had never been documented in Nome before. Thoman said a similar event happened in the summer of 1977, when a wall of smoke covering the town prevented flights from taking off and landing. However, that was due to local wildfires on the Seward Peninsula — not blazes hundreds of miles away.

Image at the top: A rare sight of Nome, fully covered in smoke. Photo by Maggie West, used with permission.

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