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Climate

Almost Everyone Got the Smoke Wrong

We didn’t know it was coming. We didn’t know where it came from. We still can’t nail its climate change connection.

The Earth and President Biden.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

What happened?

No, seriously — what happened?

Last week, the American megalopolis, that string of jewels on the old Atlantic coast, found itself shrouded by wildfire smoke. New York City’s air turned ashen and dun, then glowed a supernatural amber. For the first time in who-knows, sightseers standing at the U.S. Capitol Building could not see the Washington Monument, a mile and change down the Mall.

You could list the sports games canceled or flights delayed, but what was oddest about the event was the sheer ubiquity of it. This was one of the few news stories I can remember where you could look up from whatever article you were reading and see the story itself, softly lapping at your window.

And then it was gone. By Friday, the haze had blown out to sea.

It was, in retrospect, a strange time — deeply strange, humblingly strange, strange before almost any other quality. More than 128 million Americans were under an air-quality alert on Wednesday night — roughly the population of Germany and Spain combined — but scarcely 36 hours earlier, nobody had known to prepare for anything worse than a moderate haze. The country’s biggest wildfire-pollution event on record arrived essentially out of nowhere.

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  • One of the main modes of journalism today — but also, frankly, one of the main frames of our whole cultural apparatus, from TikToks that lightly gloss Wikipedia articles to rampant right-wing conspiracism — is that of the explanation. Everyone explains what’s happening to each other, as it happens, at all times, and therefore makes the world seem rational, empirical, and less frightening. Yet with the wildfire smoke, what is so striking is how little we understood. Nearly every important step in the story was misapprehended as it happened.

    We didn’t know that the smoke was coming, for instance. On Tuesday morning, meteorologists predicted that the same moderate haze that has hung around all season would again hit the East Coast. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation put out an alert saying that the air quality index, or AQI, might rise to 150 across the state.

    They did not forecast — nobody, as far as I can tell, did — that the worst air pollution in decades would soon wallop the state. By Tuesday night, New York City’s AQI had already reached 174, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. As I walked home in D.C., I could see tendrils of visible smoke hugging the upper stories of apartment buildings.

    This prediction failure gave the ensuing response a halting, confused quality. How could such a massive event come out of nowhere? Not until Thursday afternoon — when the smoke had nearly passed — did the federal government advise its workers that they could telework or take vacation time to avoid the bad air. On Friday, New York closed in-person schools, just in time for blue sky to return.

    I find it hard to blame them. This was an unprecedented event in part because the fires were so far from where they affected. Everyone had seen the videos of smoke besieging Portland and San Francisco in 2020, but back then, the fires had been near those cities — a couple hundred miles away at most. Where was the smoke coming from now? The Adirondacks were fine. Vermont was’t burning.

    Here, we misunderstood again. Many outlets — including this one, at first — initially reported that the smoke came from Nova Scotia, where large and destructive fires had raged the week before. But those fires had been doused over the weekend by some of the same weather pattern that was now ferrying smoke to us. In fact, the smoke had come from the boreal forests of northern Quebec, more than 500 miles from New York City.

    Why were these fires raging? Not even Canadians could give a good answer. With fires in Alberta and Nova Scotia gobbling attention and resources, the Quebec fires had seemingly been an afterthought until their smoke blew into Toronto and Ottawa, which happened only a few hours before it arrived in New York. Suddenly, a secondary event had become the main event.

    On Wednesday, I talked to a Canadian climatologist who seemed hazy about why Quebec was burning in the first place. “I think this situation is kind of similar to Nova Scotia,” he told me, blaming that province’s warm, dry spring for the blazes. But this explanation — which appeared in many outlets — was only somewhat true: While Quebec had suffered a warm May, it was not in drought.

    We did not understand why these fires are burning — and honestly, we still don’t. President Joe Biden said that the smoke provided “another stark reminder of the impacts of climate change.” I am not so sure. There’s no doubt, to be clear, that climate change will make wildfires worse across North America: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that hot, dry “fire weather” will increase throughout the 21st century. But, again, Quebec is not in drought. As for today, no climate-change signal has appeared in eastern Canadian wildfire data. Their connection to climate change is far less clear cut than it is in, say, California’s blazes.

    Yet neither would I condescend to someone who does blame climate change here. When something like this happens, how can you not cite the planet’s biggest ongoing physical transformation? If climate change makes flukey weather more likely, shouldn’t we at least consider it being responsible for some of the flukiest weather in decades? The thing about unprecedented events is that you lack precedent for them.

    Not that we completely lack an example for this. In 1780, the sun was blotted out across New England. Nocturnal animals came out; people fretted in the streets and abandoned their work; the Connecticut state legislature considered adjourning for doomsday. Not until a decade ago did we finally learn that the “dark day” was caused by Canadian wildfire smoke drifting south.

    Which suggests that this might be a once-in-250-year event. But maybe it’s not any more. Maybe with climate change, it’s a once-a-century event. Or a once-in-a-decade event. For now, the sample size is two.

    So I wonder: If it wasn’t climate change, would it matter? The pandemic has already taught us that indoor air quality matters, that unseen particles floating in the air can do serious harm. No matter what happens with the climate, Canada is too large and unpopulated to fight every wildfire; neither can it manage the same kind of labor-intensive forest management that California might attempt. East Coasters should come away from our own dark days with new compassion for people out West — and those across the world — who must deal with wildfire smoke on a seasonal basis, not to mention the fires themselves. Regardless of climate change’s role in this fire, it makes wildfires more likely: We should continue to try to decarbonize as fast as we can.

    But as for local policy, perhaps our aims should be humbler. We now know (again) that a great cloud of wildfire smoke can blow up on the East Coast at any moment and poison our air. We don’t need to know everything to protect ourselves and our neighbors from that. Air filters cost hundreds of dollars, but not thousands; in new multi-family buildings, they are built into the ventilation system itself. Perhaps the right lesson from this outbreak should be to change our expectations, and think of indoor air filtering like brushing your teeth — a habit essential to our hygiene, to be used by all, and to be provisioned for those who cannot afford one at the public expense.

    Maybe that’s prudent climate adaptation. Or maybe — in the wake of COVID, Canadian smoke, and who-knows-what-comes-next — it’s just new common sense.

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    Robinson Meyer profile image

    Robinson Meyer

    Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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