Up on East Hill, the consequences of the escalating climate crisis manifested this week as a gray haze filled the sky — it’s smoke from the West Coast.
Yes: Smoke from the West Coast’s devastating fires stretched across the nation, from sea to shining sea, to reach Ithaca this week. The fires that have burned over 5 million acres in California, Oregon and Washington, are the worst the region has seen in decades.
Throughout Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, a thin haze filled the sky, filtering sunlight and giving way to a sea of gray. A spokesperson from the National Weather Service forecast office in Binghamton confirmed in a message to The Sun that the haze above Ithaca was indeed smoke from the fires.
Experts in climatology, including Prof. Arthur DeGaetano, earth and atmospheric sciences, lamented the circumstances for the fires.
“Yesterday I could look at the sun and not hurt my eyes,” DeGaetano said Wednesday, adding that climate change is one of several causes of the fires. “This year, it’s probably one of the bigger ones. The west has been dry, the west has been hot.”
The Weather Service spokesperson said there was likely no health threat in central New York from the smoke, but students spending time outdoors during the week drew connections between the slightly dimmer sunlight and the larger crisis.
Upper level winds continue to spread smoke from the West Coast #wildfires across much of the northern half of the CONUS, reaching well into the Atlantic Ocean! Skies will continue to be hazy as a result. Meanwhile, #HurricaneSally is impacting portions of the Southeast. pic.twitter.com/LadTkwIs21
— NWS New York NY (@NWSNewYorkNY) September 16, 2020
While studying with a friend outside Goldwin Smith Hall on Wednesday, Claire Stein ’24 from New York City said she was stunned when she learned the sun was obscured not by clouds, but by smoke.
“I wouldn’t have even thought,” Stein said. “It brings out the gravity of the situation: Climate change is very real and affects everyone.”
Outside the College Avenue location of Collegetown Bagels, Marissa Young ’22 from Connecticut said the situation in the sky above made her more inclined to help advocate for solutions to the climate crisis.
“I think a lot of people maybe don’t know exactly what they can do,” Young said.
In 2020, the reality of the climate crisis has continued to rear its head. DeGaetano highlighted the Northeast’s record-breaking summer temperatures and “hyperactive” Atlantic hurricane season — forecasters at the National Hurricane Center are about to run off the 21 name-list they have for tropical storms and hurricanes.
And while this is not the first time smoke has filled the atmosphere above East Hill — fires in Canada have infrequently had the same effect — DeGaetano said this is the longest he has seen the smoke linger, let alone the fact that the smoke is traveling from California, not Canada.
The shrouded sunsets on the slope, fainted daytime sunrays and eerie afterglow of haze are expected to subside in Ithaca by Thursday, according to the Weather Service. But conditions on the West Coast continue to deteriorate.
Sabrina Martin ’23, who is from Palo Alto, California, described how over the past six years, the prevalence of destructive wildfires back home has escalated. Her high school sometimes canceled classes or outdoor activities because of poor air quality from the fires.
Fires are now as close as 30 miles from Martin’s home in California. The cars in her driveway are often coated with a layer of ash, and the park she frequented while growing up was destroyed in this season’s fires.
On Tuesday, Martin realized the smoke had reached Ithaca. And while it’s nowhere as close to the orange glow of fire back home, a problem once exclusive to her West-Coast home now haunts her across the country.
“This entire thing has given me a gut-wrenching feeling,” Martin said.