Voices: ‘It’s like being on Mars’: The smoke in the air in New York is so thick you can feel it in your lungs

By 2pm, it looked like the sun was already setting in New York City.

Smoke from hundreds of forest fires raging in Canada blew into town this week, choking out the sun and casting an eerie sepia tone across skyscrapers and city blocks.

By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, the air quality index in parts of the city climbed beyond 400 – a level considered “hazardous”. The scale only goes up to 500, and typically the air quality index hovers around 100. As some have said, it’s like being on Mars: the sky turned orange and the sharp edges of the city blurred behind the smog.

City schools canceled outdoor recess and activities, the Yankees baseball game was postponed and flights were temporarily grounded due to low visibility. Stepping outside in New York was like gathering around a campfire, but without the smores and camaraderie.

It felt like early 2020, with a respiratory threat hanging in the air and official warnings to stay indoors. A few days ago, only a handful of commuters were wearing masks on the subway or outside. Today, I’d put that number at above 50 per cent.

And yet, Midtown Manhattan was still bustling. Tourists and office workers alike stopped on the sidewalk to gawk at the sky and snap photos of the post-apocalyptic scene. Instagram lit up with increasingly dire scenes, from the George Washington Bridge shrouded in an orange haze to the New York skyline being barely visible from the harbour.

Others didn’t seem to pay the smoke much mind. Outside of the iconic Madison Square Garden, revellers were eating lunch from food trucks, seemingly unbothered by the poor air quality. Some bars and restaurants even advertised their air purifiers as a way to entice customers to venture out.

On Tuesday evening, as the smoke started descending on the city, I cycled from my apartment to Brooklyn Bridge Park to survey the scene. I foolishly set out without a mask, and could quickly feel the irritation in my lungs as I pedalled towards the waterfront. On a clear day, the Manhattan skyline shimmers across the East River. It’s one of the best places in the city to catch a sunset. But on Tuesday, the view was dulled, and the buildings appeared ashy and gray.

New Yorkers are resilient. We’ve lived through extreme weather, from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to the remnants of Hurricane Ida in 2021 that flooded apartments and subway stations with extraordinary swiftness.

But the smoke felt different – and inescapable. Even inside state-of-the-art office buildings, the stench is faint but evident. It’s a reminder that the climate crisis is at our doorstep, unavoidable even in wealthy and progressive cities.

Californians were quick to remind New Yorkers that wildfire smoke is a fact of life on the West Coast. Fire seasons have grown increasingly dire in places like California, Oregon and Washington. But to New Yorkers, this is new. We’re experiencing the worst air quality since the 1980s, and even worse than after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in lower Manhattan.

Over the coming days, the smoke is expected to clear and everyday life will return. But it will be imperative for city and state leaders to effectively plan how to respond to climate disasters going forward. Mayor Eric Adams admitted that the situation was “unprecedented”.

“This is the challenge we’re doing and there are going to be more issues like this, and there’s no blueprint or playbook for these type of issues,” he said during a city briefing.

But this won’t be the last time smoke chokes the city. We need to prepare now for what’s coming next.