Wood smoke smothers Coyhaique, Chile, in June and July. Yet despite the WHO ranking its air worst in the Americas, residents are reluctant to alter their habits
I was born and raised beside a roaring fire, says Yasna Seguel proudly, as wet snowflakes tap against the kitchen window behind her and orange flames warm an outstretched palm. A tobacco-yellow stain soaks into the table cloth as she sets her mate gourd down to select a fresh log for the fire.
Every evening through the bitterly cold winter months of June and July, the southern city of Coyhaique, the most populous in the region of Aysn in Chilean Patagonia, is smothered by a thick, fragrant blanket of damp wood smoke that clings to the hillsides.
With the city lying between two mountainous ridges to the east lies the Pacific Ocean and behind the steep rise on the other side of the valley is Argentina there is very little wind to sweep the smoke down the valley and away. Instead, heat inversion compresses the cloud into a dense shield that suffocates the city.
A 2018 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) looking at 4,357 cities in 108 countries worldwide showed Coyhaique to have the worst air quality in the Americas and ranked it 139th unhealthiest in the world.
Coyhaique is confined to an area that is incredibly unfavourable in terms of ventilation, says Nicols Huneeus, an assistant professor at the University of Chiles geophysics department in Santiago who works to monitor air pollution up and down the country. Add low temperatures and cheap firewood to the mix, and the problem isnt one that we can solve without a sustained, coordinated effort.
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