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We're All California Now
The apocalyptic smoke over New York City will get real familiar pretty soon.
The sky outside in New York City looks crazy as hell right now. It is gray and orange and yellow and hazy, like wearing a warm-tinted pair of Ray-Bans with a thin layer of vaseline across them. It looks like god woke up and fucked with the outside world’s white balance. Lightroom presets with the sliders all wonky. You can’t even see the sun. I think. I haven’t really been outside today and I can’t see the sun from my desk.
The reason for all of this is that a huge swath of Canada is on fire. If you play around on the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System website you can see all kinds of cool maps that show hundreds of burning fires across Canada, many of which are sending huge plumes of smoke that, today, appear to have floated right over downtown Manhattan and just stuck there. Here is a wild picture:
Seems bad! Do not love this.
The reaction to this very Dante-like circle of hell we currently find ourselves in has roughly fallen into two categories. On one hand, we have New Yorkers and East Coasters in general going “Wow! This is really bad! Fires seem bad!” On the other hand, we have nearly the entire American and Canadian West saying, “Yes you dipshits it’s extremely bad, thank you for catching up.” Some in this latter group are being annoying about the media attention Orange New York is getting, but we do not have to pay them any mind because all of their fires are actually extensively covered and also this usually doesn’t happen in New York. Well, at least until now.
If you stop for about one second to think past “wow, orange, yuk,” the next question is when will this end? In the short term, the Washington Post reports that wind conditions should blow some of this shit off the Eastern Seaboard on Friday and Saturday, though it’ll still be smoky. The better question, then, is “will this happen again?” The answer to that is yes.
In a new nationwide analysis of weather conditions over the past 50 years, the research nonprofit Climate Central found that the annual number of days that have a high risk of fire has risen by 10 days in northern New Jersey and coastal New York, which includes the city and Long Island.
The pattern falls in line with the experiences of New Jersey Forest Service Fire Chief Greg McLaughlin. In the distant past, he had always sent his crew for most of the summer to help out with forest fires in other states. But last year, his whole crew had too many local fires to handle to spare any firefighters out of state.
The fact that “fire season” on the East Coast is only about a month is sort of beside the point. Sure, the West has a fire season that lasts most of the year, but that month on the East Coast is just the beginning. California, here we come.
Things will surely be better in the Northeast for the foreseeable future, but the smoke in New York is only going to happen again, and again. Per Atmos Earth:
“New England has a lot of forests that can potentially burn and create conditions similar to what we see in the western U.S.,” said Aaron Weiskittel, director of the University of Maine’s Center for Research on Sustainable Forests, who can see this reality unfolding in 10-20 years. “There is potential and there is precedent that fires can pose a risk.”
What this highlights, I think, is how easy some of these things are to ignore before they happen to you. A couple years back I wrote about how even in the tiny mountain community in California that I grew up in, which has been in imminent danger from wildfires for years, the reality didn’t sink in for many people until it was our turn to burn.
The pattern of the seasons and the fact that human beings’ tiny golf ball brains are very good at ignoring non-imminent danger means that New Yorkers are lucky enough to just not have to think about this stuff very often. This is the first time while living on the East Coast that my daily life has been directly impacted by a wildfire (my soccer game tonight was canceled). In California, it happens all the time. We’re all California now.
What this becomes is just another data point in the overwhelming argument that our planet is becoming increasingly uninhabitable. There are two futures ahead of us: in one, we keep plodding ahead until enough of us die off that some form of equilibrium returns, ignoring the data and the science until it’s too late. In another, the one that we’re banking on, these little data points and bad smoky days eventually add up to a critical mass that allows human beings to break through the power structures that keep us plodding and remake the world a few decades or centuries before the environment takes it completely out of our hands. That isn’t exactly a rosy projection for the future of climate change, I know. But it’s pretty hard to see anything else when your whole world is clogged with smoke.