The Desolation of Smog
Whenever the temperature dips below -20 F (-29 C) in Fairbanks, the city gets smothered in a blanket of smog. Part of this is our weird topography — a flat river valley bound on two sides by mountain ranges — which creates what is known as a temperature inversion. Warm air gets trapped beneath denser, cooler air and can’t rise. Thus, all the smoke from the wood-stoves and all the auto exhaust intermingles with the fog that visits us in winter. At its best, the fog creates hoarfrost on the trees (and we have lots of trees,) such that it looks like you’re living inside a Christmas card. But at its worst, it creates an awful smog that drives me to wearing an allergy mask during the dead of winter. The locals euphemize the phenomenon as “ice fog,” and by all accounts they seem to be inured to its effects. The smog is so thick that I assumed it was the sole contributor to the annual average for the air pollution of the city.
Yesterday was the longest day of the year (though really we haven’t seen true darkness since late April, thanks to our extra-long dawns and dusks,) and Fairbanks celebrated its Midnight Sun Festival, the largest outdoor event in the state. Our summer-collegiate baseball team, the Alaska Goldpanners, played their annual Midnight Sun Game, considered amongst the unique and original events in sports. It was a glorious first day of summer.
This morning, though, I smelt something odd. At first I thought the motor was burning out on my desk fan. Great, I thought, I have to replace it, but good thing I’m headed to the store. On my way out the building, the same burning smell permeated the building, and I half-wondered if the building was on fire.
Then I set foot outside and realized that this is what forest-fire season looks like in Fairbanks.
There are over 100 forest fires in Alaska at present. The closest is near the town of Nenana, an hour’s drive west of here. I had assumed Fairbanks was safe from the effects of the fires, as long as they kept their distance. But, like I said, Fairbanks is in a river valley bound by mountains, and Nenana is to the west. Which means that all the smoke of the fires is channeled directly to the city.
Visibility is almost as low as it is during the worst of the winter smog, and my breath sears my lungs. It looks like it’s time to break out my allergy mask once again.
And yet, I do enjoy living here.
Why? First off, I lucked into a great program for my degree, where my colleagues have become my friends and my professors have become my lifelong mentors. We have a community here, and that’s what I most wanted out of graduate school. Fairbanks is also a nice place to live, smog aside. The people are warm and friendly and sociable. We have unique cultural opportunities, like the World Ice Art Championships, and the city attracts people from all over the world. And as I’ve aged, I’ve come to prefer living in small towns over big cities. Not that Fairbanks is that small — about 80,000, depending on how you count it — but, compared to some of the places I’ve lived, it’s small, or, I suppose, just right.
The smog still sucks. But one thing I have learnt in life is that there is no perfect place. No matter where you live, there will be things you like and things you don’t like. It’s a matter of what compromises you are willing to make.
And, for a couple more years, wearing an allergy mask on occasion is a suitable compromise.