Thinking through smoke

Vast firestorms across a series of Canadian provinces sent huge plumes of smoke aloft, as I noted on Sunday. Those clouds have since drifted south, across the international boundary, and down across several American states, including the one where my family and I have been this week.

On Wednesday Ceredwyn and I were in Fredericksburg, Virginia to address the Reclaim Open conference (my blog post with all slides; full recording). That morning as we walked across campus the skies looked… wrong: extremely hazy, the sun dimmed as if behind layers of gauze.

hazy skies over Reclaim 2023

When Reclaim ended, Ceredwyn and I headed out.  We drove to the edge of town to eat a delicious meal at an Indian restaurant, then checked the skies.  A kind of mist seemed to have enveloped us.  You could stare at the sun, directly, for several seconds at a time.

hazy skies over Fredericksburg 2023

My son took this photo Thursday morning, and if I zoom in a little you can see the haze right on the ground, blotting out the train tracks and sprawling across the horizon to the right:

Railroad vanishing into mist under hazy sky, seen from concrete road barrier.

Today blue has started returning to the cottony skies. dropped the air quality status down to “Moderate.”  I was able to eat lunch on our front porch, although an unusual headache has appeared in my skull since.

So much for the personal experience of myself and my family.  Let me step back and consider what this might mean.

First, will this strange (to people east of the Mississippi) event get people thinking more ambitiously and seriously about air quality and public health?  In a New York Times editorial Lindsey Marr offers this forecast:

If the pandemic was whispering to us about air quality, the wildfires are screaming to us about it. Add to that concerns about gas stoves and longer allergy seasons, and it’s clear we should be on the precipice of a new public health movement to improve the air we breathe.

Air pollution is bad for us, and we’ve known that for a long time…

Second, is this a story about climate change?  There’s some debate about causality here, as a stretch of Canada reliably burns each spring, apparently. Michael Mann sees climate change worsening that pattern. Yet perhaps there’s a pedagogical benefit here, as Bill McKibben argues:

[W]e’re all lucky [in most of America]. Because this is what a huge percentage of the world’s people breathe every single day of their lives. In fact, we should probably—in our hearts if not our lungs—be grateful for a few days like this. They bring us much much closer to the lived experience of billions of our brothers and sisters.

Bill continues:

Today in Vermont feels like a hundred days I’ve spent in New Delhi, in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Ahmedabad. Many of those were much worse: I’ve stood on Connaught Place and not been able to see the giant Indian flag flapping in Delhi’s Central Park, even though I knew if was a few hundred feet away at most.

That smoke doesn’t come from forest fires. It comes mostly from burning fossil fuels. But it’s all combustion, and it all does the same thing to your lungs. There are four and a half million children in New Delhi, and the estimate is that half of them have irreversible lung damage from breathing the air. Around the world, nine million deaths a year—one death in five—comes from breathing the combustion byproducts of fossil fuel. About a third of all deaths in Asia come from breathing fossil fuel pollution.

If the climate crisis is the great existential crisis on our earth, then smoke is the great daily crisis.

Elsewhere, David Wallace-Wells finds a similar pedagogical moment, based on comparing eastern and western American experiences:

Until now, if people in the green and leafy Northeast looked at arid Western cities covered in smoke from wildfires, they could say, that can’t happen here, thank God. On Tuesday, it did: For a moment, New York’s air quality was worse than it was in Delhi, the infamous pollution capital where average life spans are reduced more than nine years by particulates in the air. By evening, New York had registered the worst air quality in the world among major cities. And staying indoors may not provide perfect protection.

In such comparisons, Bill McKibben turns to hope:

Happily, they’re both [climate and smoke] caused by the same thing: burning coal and gas and oil. And even more happily, we know how to end it. We just stop burning stuff, and rely instead on the fact that there’s a large ball of burning gas at a safe 93-million-mile distance. We get all the fire we could ever want, and none of the smoke. Call it “external combustion.”

External combustion: what a good phrase.

I hope all of you reading this are safe.  Besides fine particles, what reflections are you experiencing on the topic?


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19 Responses to Thinking through smoke

  1. I just returned from a week in Victoria, British Columbia, and my itinerary since yesterday hopped from there to Vancouver to Toronto and finally to DC. It was touch and go whether the wildfire smoke would ground me in Toronto, although given that air travel is a high carbon activity, the irony would not have been lost on me.

    I was very, very sorry to miss the event at Reclaim, by the way, especially since I’m just up the road from there, but I didn’t hear about it until this trip was indelibly planned. Alas.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Carbon to carbon, eh? There’s something too on the nose there, that kinda of connection, that closed loop.

      Reclaim was very sweet.

  2. Arin says:

    A distinguishing feature that connects air pollution as in urban air pollution, and xlimate change is that of human caused. CanIs there any reason to believe that Canadian wildfires have a human source or origin? Climate change or extant pollution may worsen the effects but the moot points are difficult to unravel. As you remarked, the counterfactual causal linkages are intractable.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      The scientific consensus is that while climate change might not cause some disasters, like this one, it can exacerbate them.

  3. Rick Crain says:

    Hi Bryan,

    External combustion is already a thing, and external combustion engines are too. I tried to build one for a physics project once.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Rick, thank you so much for sharing that term, because it now connects a bunch of technologies I’ve thought about in a new way (to me), namely Newcomen and Sterling engines.

  4. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Another lesson not learned. Another opportunity squandered. Let’s all pretend we can’t see it coming.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Optimistically, this might be the nudge east coast people needed.

      Pessimistically, I’m really not sure what it’ll take to get us going. Possibly celebrities dying in a climate disaster.

  5. Lisa Stephens says:

    In your recent book, i was captivated by your reference to Nordhaus’ “…modeling of how humans discount the future as compared to the present…” and how our current situation forces us to pay attention.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good catch, Lisa. That future discounting is, in a sense, what we’re all fighting about – or carefully refusing to discuss.

  6. George Lorenzo says:

    I keep seeing that scene in what I believe was the last episode of “Extrapolations,” where a young man and woman arrive for a dinner party with lightweight oxygen-tank backpacks that their host takes from them like coats and places in a coat closet. There are other devices in that drama that look eerily feasible in a not-too-distant future – like the enhanced face masks and the portable sleeping bags that are mini oxygen tanks.

  7. Roxann says:

    Is it a coincidence that I was watching the last episodes of Manifest suggesting an apocalyptic earth inferno? This week the smoke particles in the air burned my eyes, nose and throat while I ran in the house to get one my KN95 pandemic masks that I thought didn’t we retire those masks??? (So glad I had a few spares!)

    The writers also visually captured this end of the earth inferno scenario while at the same time depicting plane passengers spontaneously combusting. I thought that was incredibly far fetched but then again… I’m applauding a fantastic ending… TMI? spoiler alert!

  8. Terrance says:

    Just more evidence that eventually an invasive species digs it own.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Indeed. Did you see my two posts about competing models for the next 200 years? You remind me of one of them, the “demoderns.”

  9. Pingback: Reclaim Open at the Scale of this Blog | bavatuesdays

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