Missing the Clear Blue Skies

From a New York Times guest essayI by Paul Bogard headlined “I Am Homesick for the Sky”:

The first day in early June when my 5-year-old and I camped in Minnesota’s lake country was the usual heaven — perfect calm for canoeing, an osprey overhead as we braved a swim in the cold spring water and a clear blue sky.

But the second day the sky was smoke, the sun a ruby disc. I yearned for the blue and wondered how long the smoke would stay. The winds eventually shifted, but the smoke returned last week and the Twin Cities’ air quality index on Wednesday climbed high into the Environmental Protection Agency’s “very unhealthy” level. I worry about how often it will return this summer and fall.

For more than a decade, I have been writing about the intangible costs of losing the natural night sky to light pollution and the rapid growth in the number of low Earth orbit satellites disrupting our view of the heavens. But lately, there are troubling changes to our daytime sky.

New research suggests that wind patterns and cloud formation are growing increasingly erratic. In some places, we have too much rain, in others too little. Huge wildfire smoke events are becoming more common. The list of changes occurring above us, spurred on in part by burning fossil fuels, is long and getting longer. It means we must now contemplate the more frequent loss of our blue skies.

When the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” about two decades ago to describe a form of grief he later defined as the “lived experience of the desolation of a much-loved landscape,” he wasn’t thinking specifically about the sky, but he might as well have been. Already many of us are experiencing something previously unimaginable: We are homesick for the sky.

There have always been wildfires in North American forests, but the fires in Canada that sent the plumes over my Minnesota home are burning earlier than what’s normal for Canada. What’s happening there mirrors what’s happening in the Western United States, where the average annual number of wildfires has more than tripled since 1970. Some 37 percent of the cumulative areas burned by forest fires in the Western United States and southwestern Canada between 1986 and 2021 have been influenced by human-caused climate change.

This year, above-average heat in Canada helped create the conditions ripe for a long and intense wildfire season, with at least 14.3 million acres of forest already burned. Officials call this unprecedented, and in the Northwest Territories alone, fires have already burned more than 60 times the average for a year. It seems certain that air quality concerns will continue as more fires than normal are expected throughout the year, promising more smoke across Canada and the United States in the months to come.

About three decades ago, the environmental activist and author Joanna Macy argued that until the late 20th century, parents lived with “the tacit certainty” of something every previous generation had enjoyed. The certainty was that their “children and children’s children would walk the same Earth, under the same sky.” That certainty was now lost, she wrote, and that loss was “the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”

Are we supposed to just get used to more smoke in the sky? With so much climate change baked into the future, the answer is probably yes. But this new reality feels overwhelming, especially as I imagine the rest of my child’s life.

While the smoke isn’t the worst effect from our unrelenting burning of fossil fuels, it is powerfully symbolic. It is yet another retrenchment of our experience on Earth, another instance of “it didn’t used to be this way.” Indeed, much recent climate fiction, including “The Ministry for the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson and “Blue Skies” by T.C. Boyle, references the blue sky turning white from desperate attempts to geoengineer our way out of climate disaster.

I know that when my daughter sees smoke again this summer from the next wildfire, she will feel no sadness, and I will wrap her in a hug that says all is well. She doesn’t know that these skies are abnormal, that we rarely saw smoke like this here when I was a child — or, really, until two years ago. But here is another example of shifting baseline syndrome, where each new generation takes as normal the diminished world it inherits.

I hate this smoke for what it does to our present and what it says about her future. I feel rage when I think of the companies, governments and individuals who continue to make decisions about burning fossil fuels that promise to fill my child’s future with smoke. But I also have to find another way to feel. I have to find ways to hold joy alongside anger, hope alongside grief.

Minnesota’s name comes from the Dakota word “Mnisota,” meaning “sky-tinted water.” Here, a new single-vote majority in the Senate recently finished the most progressive legislative session in decades, including passing a robust clean energy bill. Having just enough votes allowed for one of the most meaningful statewide efforts to address climate change in history.

This legislation won’t erase the smoke or solve our climate challenges. But it will push us in the right direction. And doing what we can and all we can will go far to address emotional and psychological distress.

We have long looked at the sky with wonder, to tell our future and to find our gods. It still has enormous power to shape our lives, to signal how disrupted our climate is becoming. I wonder if these smoky days might offer an opportunity to other states that haven’t gone as far as Minnesota, because seeing the blue sky disappear is hard to ignore.

Maybe on mornings like this, rising to find the sky full of smoke, just enough people will decide: This burning world is not the world I have known, and it’s not the world I want my children to know.

Maybe losing our blue skies more often will be just what we need.

Paul Bogard teaches at Hamline University and is the editor of “Solastalgia: An Anthology of Emotion in a Disappearing World.”

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