Over the last two weeks, (June 1 – 9th), two events took place. First, I started a new job at JP Morgan (loving it so far)! Second, spewed by wildfires in Quebec, skies all over North Eastern US, from Maryland to the Canadian capital, filled with a monstrous cloud of smoke grounding flights, forcing people to stay indoors and scrounging in shelves for long-forgotten masks and leaving millions of people at risk of breathing unhealthy air. The cloud arrived in New York city this Tuesday (June 6). As I walked out of my office building in Hudson yards, I noticed the air smelled like an old campfire, smoky, gritty and slightly fetid. For a moment, I felt confused and wondered if the elevator I just came down was secretly a portkey from a Harry Potter novel that teleported me to New Delhi! Because that’s how air in New Delhi smells like, on a normal day. The sky looked a dull shade of orange, conjuring up images of the Martian sky and of San Francisco during the horrible wildfire season two years ago. I remember thinking back then–“glad I don’t live there, because that kind of thing doesn’t happen on the east coast!” Except of course, it does.
The next day, on the way to work, I saw more people masked than unmasked for the first time in a couple of years, raising some old pandemic anxieties. Conversation at work turned from figures about the stock market, people pickleball duprs and commuting delays to the air quality index and comparisons with cities people had lived or traveled in other parts of the world.
This experience reminded me of something I had heard a while back–that out of the 5 senses, smell is the strongest for evoking old memories. Because it instantly brought back memories of perennially polluted Delhi skies where even at high noon on a clear day, the sun can appear to be a diffuse yellow ball radiating gentle warmth, rather than a blindingly bright, sharp disk..You must travel dozens of miles outside the city to be reminded that skies are actually blue in color… The daily average of 2.5 mm particulate matter was 204 PPM in NYC on Wednesday while the average PPM in New Delhi in Nov and Dec is around 180. The air quality is particularly bad in the winter months because of seasonally slower winds, and smoke emitted from coal-fired power plants and exacerbated by thousands of man-made fires in the agricultural fields of Punjab and Haryana, the two states northwest (upwind) of New Delhi. In this region, farmers grow rice in the summer and wheat in the winter. But after harvesting the rice, they have very little time to prepare their lands for winter sowing, and the most cost-effective way to do this quickly is to set fire to the fields. The smoke from thousands of burning fields rides the prevailing winds across Northern India to New Delhi and other nearby cities where it can linger for months.
A friend from Ukraine told me that this experience reminded him of walking through cigarette smoke filled pedestrian underpasses under the wide streets of Kiev built to help pedestrian cross streets without waiting installing walk signs, which would have been ignored anyway by drivers
Most importantly, this is a reminder from mother nature that climate change is here and now and couldn’t care less about national boundaries. We ignore or discount the mounting signs to our own peril..