Smoke from California fires alters Ann Arbor sunsets


Photo courtesy of Jon Thomas-Palmer. The view of the red sunset from Veteran’s Memorial Park.

On the evening of Sept. 16 at around 7:30 p.m., Ann Arborites traveled past the grassy fields and dusty baseball diamond at Veteran’s Memorial Park. All of them enjoyed different pastimes — joggers, tennis players retiring for the day, couples holding hands as they walked; all of them watched as California burns.

The wildfires have placed Californians in crisis: more than five million acres have been burned, tens of thousands of residents have been uprooted from their homes, the very air is dangerous to breathe, and the death toll has reached at least 27. This August was California’s warmest on record — a result of the climate crisis — and forests were dry, making them more vulnerable to wildfires.

Smoke from these fires has traveled thousands of miles to Michigan, where smoke particles are large enough to alter the color of the sun at sunset and sunrise.

“That smoke is basically a giant filter and what it’s doing is it’s filtering out the wavelengths of light,” said Jon Thomas-Palmer, CHS physics teachers and founder of educational YouTube channel Flipping Physics.

The wavelengths refer to the size of light from all of the colors of the rainbow. Smaller wavelengths — the colors blue, indigo, violet and green — are being blocked by the smoke, causing red, orange and yellow to be the only visible light, with an emphasis on red.

On Sept. 16, Thomas-Palmer, accompanied by his wife and eldest daughter, walked the ten minutes from their suburban neighborhood of Wildwood Park to the empty baseball diamond at Veteran’s Memorial Park on Dexter Avenue.

“I was actually able to smell the smoke,” Thomas-Palmer said. “And we are very far away from California; currently, we can go outside and the smoke from the fires is not really affecting our health, but we have friends in California right now who cannot leave their house because of the smoke, because the particulate matter in the air is so bad for you.”

The three of them stood with their eyes pointing West, watching the sun burn, grateful for the thousands of miles separating them from the cause of that bright red sunset.