Sunday, June 11, 2023


New York City, Wednesday 7th June 2023, 18:17 ET

Between Monday 5th and Friday 9th June, I took my first holiday outside of the United Kingdom, to New York City with my parents, since beginning this website in May 2016. This wasn’t intentional, but more because my last couple of holidays have been guided by museum exhibitions, resulting in my trip to Tate Liverpool in 2019 to see art by Keith Haring, and travelling to Milton Keynes in 2021 to see furniture by the Memphis collective. To this end, expect an American flavor, instead of flavour, to some upcoming subjects.


The main takeaway from this week in New York, however, is that I experienced its worst air quality in sixty years, and walking for miles in it will sting your eyes.


I did not watch the news on the morning of Tuesday 6th June, having chosen Looney Tunes cartoons instead, but I was told the main news was the ongoing effect of wildfires in Canada. They began in March, but by June had affected eleven million acres of forest, around fifteen times more than expected for this time of year, displacing 120,000 people in the progress. Two thirds of the over four hundred wildfires were categorised as “out of control”, and their smoke was being carried south towards the north-eastern United States.


New York City, Wednesday 7th June 2023, 18:12 ET

Fortunately, our plans that day took us to the Hudson River side of Manhattan and away from the skyscrapers – I am mindful enough of the tall buildings in London holding in exhaust fumes, so New York City was a perfect incubator for all the incoming particulates. All we experienced was a bit of rain, and the grey haze in the sky turning a bit yellow – otherwise, we were fine.


The air quality index used in the United States since 1968 usually puts New York into the yellow “moderate” category, with a value between 101 and 150, indicating a risk to people sensitive to air pollution, but otherwise acceptable. Overnight, and through Wednesday 7th June, this index reached 484 at 5pm local time – the maroon “hazardous” category begins at 301, described as “health warning of emergency conditions: everyone is more likely to be affected”. The highest level ever recorded on this index, New York City was briefly the most polluted city on Earth, the sky having turned orange.


On the ground, those who already wore masks from the COVID-19 pandemic continued to war them as normal, and everyone else did not. Fire stations began handing out N95 and KN95-standard masks, again left over from the pandemic, but this did not start until Thursday 8th June – by then, Mayor Eric Adams had appeared behind various lecterns telling people to curb their activity, to stay indoors, and that they could skip exercising their dog. 


New York City, Wednesday 7th June 2023, 18:17 ET

Meanwhile, my parents and me carried on as normal: the sky had become a sandy colour once we entered the Museum of Modern Art, becoming orange while we were inside. We took refuge in the toy shop FAO Schwarz, in the Rockefeller Center, and later at the Hard Rock Café on Broadway. We only heard from Mayor Adams in the early evening, having walked around more shops. We had reduced our activity, but this meant walking for eight miles instead of twelve. Despite wearing glasses, my eyes had begun to sting, but not enough for them to tear up. 


We took as many pictures of the sky as everyone else, both locals and tourists, and we had to be outside to do it. We were there for an experience, and this was the only one not planned. On Thursday 8th June, the sky was clearer, turning to blue through the day, as the wind blew the smoke further east, and we kept ourselves around the outside of Manhattan once again. Now back home, we have no side effects from the smog, but we were lucky, as we could leave. On Sunday 11th June, the air quality index registered at 109.


It is not a case that I believe in climate change, for we have experienced the effects of it. This may have been an extreme event, but it is one more likely to take place. Not modifying our behaviour all that much was unwise, but this will have been an event where the advice will now be anticipated for next time. That this event will be described as a one-off, or rare, belies the effect that, around the world, they are happening more often. If you thought you could do something to mitigate the damage caused, you would do it. If you thought you had a way to prevent it, you would do it. I only sound like I am babbling because I feel the need that someone really should be doing something.

No comments:

Post a Comment