When the heavens turned yellow

Charles Gordon July 25 1988

When the heavens turned yellow

Charles Gordon July 25 1988

When the heavens turned yellow

Charles Gordon


It was difficult to describe the color of the sky. It was not quite grey, because there were no clouds. It was almost white at times, a bit yellow, perhaps. On those hot, suffocating days, people could argue about what color the sky was. They were in agreement that it was not blue.

After all the years of experts preaching about air pollution, a few hot, grey—or perhaps yellow—days were finally making ordinary Canadians pay attention. For once, the heavens and the experts were speaking with one voice. For once, the warnings of the scientists were getting frontpage coverage in the newspapers and expanded treatment on the TV news. The need to fight for the atmosphere was an idea whose time had finally come.

There had to be some luck in it, if you can call it luck. Just at the time that 325 scientists and science bureaucrats were meeting in Toronto to discuss the atmosphere, Western Canada was suffering through drought. While the scientists at the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere talked about the greenhouse effect—a warming of the planet caused by the buildup of gases clogging the atmosphere—Canadians could feel the heat and know that they were not enjoying it.

The usual media response to a heat wave is lots of pictures of bikini-clad swimmers. The height of investigative reporting during a heat wave is a phone call to the beer store to see whether supplies will last. Not this time. The beer store story was relegated to the inside pages (helped, perhaps, by news that no shortage was in sight). The greenhouse effect was on page 1.

If scientists had been talking about the greenhouse effect in January, Canadians would not have been alarmed. The idea of a twoor three-degree increase in the average temperature would have seemed not so bad at all. But now, the environmental bad news could be both read and felt.

Partly because the conference and the heat coincided, partly because the conference and the Prairie drought coincided, the conference on the atmosphere received more prominence in the news media than might have been the case otherwise.

It was also lucky, although not for those immediately affected, that arctic

sunburns were fresh on Canadian minds. Despite smearing on sunscreens more powerful than anything used by the most nervous sunbather, members of a Soviet-Canadian expedition to the North Pole sustained severe sunburns, attributed to a hole in the ozone layer. Under the circumstances, and with the sky taking on that peculiar color, Canadians began to believe there was something to all the environmental alarms they had been ignoring for years.

In Ottawa, when the air quality level reached 32, the local media began consulting the experts. Should people avoid exercise? Should they keep their pets inside? A level of 32 meant that air quality was hovering near a “moderate” rating, but nobody remembered the air being as bad as “moderate” before. In fact, 32 was about double the usual pollution rating in the capital. The experts said don’t worry. The pol-

For once, the scientific warnings received frontpage coverage—and finally made ordinary Canadians pay attention

lution level could, possibly, harm plants if they were of a particularly sensitive nature.

In Toronto, the index hit 84. In neighboring Oakville, it reached 90. Any level above 50 can irritate eyes and threaten the health of those with respiratory ailments and allergies. A level above 100 is considered serious. Toronto and Oakville had thought about pollution before. But now people in previously unpolluted places were talking about pollution. Levels reached 40 in North Bay and Sault Ste. Marie. In Sudbury, the normal level of pollution is usually less than 15, when the nickel smelters are not in operation. The two major nickel smelters were not running at the time of the heat wave. Sudbury’s pollution level was 40.

It was hot, all right. In Toronto, the Star ran the headline “37.6” in huge red numbers on a yellow background. Since this is Canada and not everybody might know how hot that was, the Star added another line, “Yesterday’s record equals 99.6 F,” in smaller letters underneath. In Ottawa, a transplanted Californian said that the

weather was too hot and too humid for Los Angeles. But the color of the sky reminded him of home, he said, although it was not quite brown enough.

The color of the sky, newspaper readers learned, was coming from pollutants trapped in a heat inversion. Among the pollutants were nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone. Nitrogen oxide comes from automobile emissions, sulphur dioxide comes from coal-fired plants and ozone comes from the interaction of sunlight and pollutants, especially nitrogen oxide.

Chemically speaking, that was where the color of the sky was coming from. Geographically, some of it was coming from the industrial states of the northern United States. Politically, it was creating a newly awakened public demand for action on pollutants belched into the atmosphere by the United States, whether those pollutants hung in the air during a heat wave or fell to earth as acid rain.

That demand may not come from the big industrial cities where pollution is the highest—at least not at first. People in large cities have always been able to adapt. They learn to accept long lineups, long hours spent on commuting, parking shortages and exorbitant housing costs as part of the price they pay for living where the action is. They have lived with pollution for years. They learn not to swim at the beaches and they grow accustomed to funny colors in the sky.

People in smaller centres are more likely to notice when the quality of living takes a dip. “Ottawa’s air, usually rated very good, has slipped to a good rating and is hovering near a moderate rating,” The Ottawa Citizen said when the air turned whatever color it turned. People in smaller centres have come to take clean air for granted. They are less adaptable than their bigcity cousins. In the small towns and smaller cities, people do not shrug it off when they see their air quality levels sink from the “very good” to the merely “good.” Clean air is important to them. It is part of the compensation they claim for not going to the big city and not earning the big money.

Now that they are awake, they are angry. Now that they are angry, it would be foolish for the nation’s political leaders to ignore them. It is an amazing thing what some heat and a little yellow air can do.

Charles Gordon is a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen.