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Wildfire Smoke in Northeast Is the New Abnormal

Jan 21, 2024Jan 21, 2024

A friend in Brooklyn DMed me on Sunday: "Skies here in Brooklyn have been milky and the air a pale haze for days from Canadian smoke plumes."

"I hope it doesn't go to orange,’ I wrote back. "That's when things really start feeling weird—otherworldly."

"So far no orange," he wrote. "I’ve only seen photos of that."

Yesterday, he wrote again: "Orange skies today."

Welcome to our weird new world. Out west, orange skies have become a feature of fire season from L.A. to Anchorage. Over the past few years, most west coast cities have earned the title: worst urban air quality in the world, beating out the usual suspects in Asia. Now it's New York's turn, and Boston's, and New Haven's. We feel your pain, and we dread that smell. This particulate-laden smoke is truly unhealthy; it gets in your eyes and nose, but what is most damaging is what it does to your head: your home, the world you thought you knew, is no longer quite the same. You feel a new precarity, and a creeping fear: what if it doesn't go away?

There is a theme running through the weather-related disasters now traumatizing communities around the globe in all seasons, and it is the theme of dissonance. It's not just our infrastructure that's built for a different time, it's our mindset. Whether it's the depth of the snow, the volume of the rainfall, or the speed of the flames, when it comes to extreme weather, our heads are still in the 20th century.

There is actually a name for this phenomenon: the Lucretius Problem. Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus) was a Roman poet and philosopher who identified this cognitive disconnect more than 2000 years ago. Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, paraphrases Lucretius this way: "The fool believes the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest he has observed." In essence, the Lucretius Problem is rooted in the difficulty humans have imagining and assimilating things outside their own personal experience.

In January, residents of Buffalo, New York were shocked by a record-breaking blizzard, but not because they weren't warned. Despite the timely forecast of a "once-in-a-generation storm," and "life-threatening conditions," nearly fifty people died. As with so many recent disasters, the data was there, but the interpretation wasn't. I have been grappling with this dissonance since 2016, when a similar failure of imagination collided with one of the 21st century's worst urban fires. Despite accurate and timely forecasts predicting record heat, explosive fire conditions and dangerous winds, officials in the petroleum hub of Fort McMurray, Alberta were caught flat-footed when a wildfire that had been raging in the nearby forest for days, overran the city in an afternoon. The Fort McMurray Fire, nicknamed The Beast, was not only the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, it forced the world's largest, most rapid evacuation due to fire in modern times—nearly 90,000 people.

Six hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, Fort McMurray (aka "the tar sands") may seem remote, but nearly half of all American petroleum imports—around four million barrels per day—originate there. Rendering bitumen into a useable petroleum requires astonishing quantities of natural gas, and it's why Canada's greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise while those of other G-7 nations have been dropping for a decade or more. Following a boom that dwarfed the recent fracking sprees in North Dakota and Texas, Fort McMurray's's bitumen extraction and "upgrading" industry has grown into the largest, most expensive, most energy-intensive hydrocarbon recovery project on earth.

On May 3, 2016, a human-caused fire combined with record-shattering heat unleashed a dayslong series of firestorms that annihilated neighborhoods from one end of Fort McMurray to the other. In many places, piles of nails and the warped husks of cars were all that remained. More than 2,400 homes were destroyed, and thousands more were damaged. The bitumen plants were shut down for weeks—a first. But like the driving ban in the Buffalo blizzard, and the evacuation order for Hurricane Ian, the mortal threat to Fort McMurray was identified perilously late. Hours before the fire roared into town, Fort McMurray's fire chief advised parents to take their children to school and go to work themselves. That no one died in those hundred-foot-high, metal-melting flames is a miracle—a confluence of the isolated city's strong community and young, industry-trained demographic, combined with raw courage and sheer luck.

Baffling to those trying to communicate the hazards of 21st century weather is the way in which responsible authorities continually underestimate accurate predictions, despite persistent warnings (over decades now), that we must expect lethal and unfamiliar extremes from every kind of weather. Most dismaying to climate scientists and weather analysts is how each of these failures mirrors, in microcosm, our collective failure to prepare for the larger, systemic threats posed by global climate disruption. In March, the IPCC issued its latest report, which said, in effect, Time's up! on the supreme challenge of cutting CO2 emissions. As she watched this red alert from world-class scientists slip down the rankings on The New York Times homepage, a scholar and climate activist named Genevieve Guenther tweeted, "It's utterly surreal, the dissonance."

Dissonance is becoming a hallmark of the 21st century. In some cases—like 2018's EF-3 fire tornado in Redding, California, or Tropical Storm Harvey's fifty-inch deluge in Houston, or this year's 300% snowpack in the south Sierras—no human being has ever experienced what two centuries of relentless fossil fuel burning are now enabling in our atmosphere. The Lucretius Problem has proven itself to be a feature rather than a bug in our society's response to this lethal new reality. Unexamined, it gives climate change an almost insurmountable advantage over us.

But there is a solution: and it is to act—as we do every time we fasten our seatbelts—on the precautionary principle. While many of us may be blinkered by our loyalty to past experience, there are those able to see—and anticipate—beyond these limitations. We are fortunate to have earnest, well-informed meteorologists and climate scientists laboring on our behalf, trying to prepare us for the extremes that lie ahead. As we head into another spring marked by broken temperature records and a fire season well underway from Spain to Kansas, let's listen to these climate forecasters—let's listen, and act. Heeding their timely warnings will reduce the dissonance in our heads, and guide us toward a safer, more sustainable future for our communities and loved ones.

Adapted from Vaillant's Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World

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