Last week, I got up, and looked up at a smoked early morning — the sun muted to a consonant orange ball in an even gray sky.
Some 3,000 miles away, the West Coast was blazing and in ruins. More than 4.6 million acres have burned there in the recent fires — as if all of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined had been torched.
There was enough smoke from the fires for the winds to blow it across the continent and give the New England sky those glowing Japanese print colors. It was beautiful and very odd, and off-putting.
“I’m shocked,” said Patrick Comins, president of the Connecticut Audubon Society, who posted photos of the sunset on Facebook.
“It was a sunny day, with blue skies,” said Bill Jacquemin, senior meteorologist with the Connecticut Weather Center in Danbury who photographed it as well. “But because of the smoke, it wasn’t.”
As the fires burn, hundreds of thousands of migrating songbirds have died while crossing New Mexico. Comins said researchers will study the birds to learn their cause of death.
But it may be that the wildfires forced them to migrate too early and take a different flight pattern that exhausted them. They may have died of smoke inhalation or pesticide poisoning.
All of this is a way of reinforcing this basic ecological tenet: Everything is connected. What’s happening there shows up here, and here, there. The pollution we put into the atmosphere contributes to the global warming that’s now creating drought and wildfires.
Welcome to climate change made manifest.
“It’s a global problem,” said Mitch Wagener, professor of biology at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. “We may want to think of it as a local problem, but we’re all complicit in it.”
It’s also a reminder of the problem Connecticut faces given its place in the U.S. — we’re downwind of everything, including coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. Smoke gets blown our way.
“Connecticut is the exit of the tailpipe,” said the state’s Attorney General William Tong.
The state has been fighting for years to get those Midwestern states to reckon with the pollution we have to live with.
Tong and Connecticut have now moved to a new front, suing ExxonMobil.
The state claims that the giant multinational oil producer had research beginning in the 1950s that showed that burning fossil fuels was causing climate change. Instead of acting on that research, the suit says, the company hid it and denied what its own research showed.
The suit asks for financial remediation for past, present and future harm climate change has caused the state. It also asks that ExxonMobil fully disclose its research and create a climate change education fund.
People are beginning to become aware that interconnectedness of climate change, Tong said.
“But I don’t think they’re making the connections fast enough,” he said. “That’s part of the problem.”
Here is one good thing about the smoke that’s now filling our skies. Jacquemin of the Connecticut Weather Center said changes in weather patterns may move the smoke away from the state, at least temporarily.
It’s also not altering our air quality.
Paul Farrell, director of air planning for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the soot from the smoke is floating about 20,000 feet above us.
“That’s really too far away to affect us,” Farrell said.
And if this is any consolation, it’s happened before.
Farrell said that massive fires in Ontario in 2002 and the Fort McMurray fire in Alberta Canada in 2016 both filled our skies with ashy residue.
But sometimes, big events have consequences.
In 1910, there was the The Big Blowup, the Big Burn, the Great Fire — a conflagration in Idaho and Montana that burned more than 3 million aces in two days and killed 78 firefighters. It sent smoke across New England, with its ash eventually falling on the Greenland glaciers.
The drama of the event caught the attention of Congress, which doubled funding for the nascent U.S. Forest Service.
And in 1934 and 1935 dust from the Great Plains dust storms — the Dust Bowl — darkened the skies over Washington, D.C. Presented with irrefutable evidence of that calamity, the Congress found money to fund the U.S. Soil Conservation Service.
Could these new gray, smoky skies have an impact on public opinion as well?
Tong said if it does, it’s coming late.
“It’s well past midnight,” he said.