Smogapocalypse 2023

New York, NY, USA

Long Island City smog

Skyscrapers of Long Island City partially hidden by smog

New York, NY, USA

The tall buildings in Long Island City were half-invisible, vague shapes looming out of the dense haze. You could have taken it for a winter fog, if it weren’t for the ominous sepia tint.

When I went out late in the evening, the air stank. I had been expecting the smell of woodsmoke, but this was something else, a raw, oddly sweet stench in which smoke was only an afterthought. I guessed that I must be smelling tree sap, the stink of live trees burning, not dead wood.

The next morning, the skyscrapers of Long Island City had all but vanished only hints of their outlines showing through the smoke cloud. The color of the smoke changed, now fading to grayish white, now shading more strongly toward brown or yellow. When I went out in the early afternoon, the sky turned visibly orange. Sunlight spilling through the windows was a sickly salmon color. The smoke leached the color from everything, giving digital pictures the washed-out look of 1970s film photography.

My manager wanted me to come to the office to meet a new colleague. “Now that the air has literally turned yellow,” she said, “I suggest you don’t bicycle.” I bicycled across the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn anyway, sucking foul air through a KN-95 mask and hoping that not too many of the particles were settling in my lungs.

When I left the office in the early evening, my phone showed the air quality index at 362, Hazardous. Downtown Brooklyn felt dead, the tall buildings lightless and wrapped in an ominous off-grey pall. The setting sun was a flat orange disk in the hazy sky, and even the street lights seemed to have lost their force.