Smoke-Filled Air in New York City

Nadia Podrabinek Nadia Podrabinek

Written by Nadia Podrabinek

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Smoke-Filled Air in New York City
New York City, US Source: Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP

New York City is shrouded in smoke-filled air due to wildfires raging in Canada.

Canada has been grappling with widespread wildfires in June 2023, with authorities documenting more than 400 separate blazes. Despite warnings being issued and emergency services becoming involved, smoke had already started drifting south towards the United States.

Before long, the airborne debris had engulfed New York City, pushing it to the top of the list for cities with the worst air pollution; the air quality is now the poorest it’s been since the 1960s. The sky appears a smoky orange, and photographs of the scene resemble images shot through a photo filter.

Some people are making fun of it, as usual:

Why is it orange?

When smoke fills the air, everything can appear orange due to a phenomenon known as Rayleigh scattering. This is the same process that makes the sky appear blue on a clear day.

Here’s a bit of background: Light is made up of different wavelengths, each corresponding to a different color. These wavelengths range from short (blue and violet light) to long (red, orange, and yellow light). The color of light we see depends on which wavelengths reach our eyes.

Under normal conditions, when the sun is high in the sky, shorter wavelengths of light (blue and violet) are scattered in all directions more so than other colors like red, orange, and yellow. However, our eyes are more sensitive to blue light and less sensitive to violet light, and some of the violet light gets absorbed by the ozone layer, which is why we see the sky as blue instead of violet.

In contrast, when smoke fills the air due to wildfires or other sources of pollution, it contains tiny particles that can scatter and even absorb some of the shorter wavelengths of light (blue and violet), allowing longer wavelengths (red, orange, and yellow) to reach our eyes.

This is why the sky can appear orange or even red during a heavy smoke event or at sunrise and sunset. The sun is lower in the sky during these times, and its light has to pass through more of Earth’s atmosphere, which scatters the shorter blue and green wavelengths and allows the longer wavelengths to reach our eyes.

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