Australia has been on fire for more than a month, but the flames are hardly the only impact. Smoke from Australia’s bush fires engulfed Sydney in a smoke on Tuesday, creating the most toxic air on the planet.
Scientists measure air quality using an index that measures major pollutants and uses them to rate how unhealthy the air is. The bushfire smoke on Tuesday pushed Sydney’s air quality index rating to 2,552. That’s 11 times higher than the level considered hazardous. And it’s well below air quality index readings in cities in China, India, and other places known as hotbeds of air pollution.
For context, a healthy air quality index is under 50 or so. A hazardous level is between 301 to 500. Last Fall, the Camp Fire in northern California created what was then the most dangerous air quality levels on the planet—levels reached 246 in Oakland. Right now, Sydney’s not even on the same scale.
The smoke created surreal scenes across the city. Fire alarms rang out across the city. Ferries were cancelled, buildings were evacuated, and schools were kept kids inside during recess. The toxic air has also caused face mask sales to spike.
Unions New South Wales—which represents 600,000 workers in the state—said it considers it illegal for workers to be forced to work until air quality improves. Health officials have advised people to stay inside, but air quality levels indoors might not be all that much better, an expert told Australian news network 9 News.
Some people are trying to get on with their lives, but air quality levels are particularly dangerous for elderly people, children, babies, pregnant people, and people who have asthma or are in poor cardiovascular health. Choking down the toxic air is made even worse by soaring temperatures and a drought.
Dozens climate change-fuelled bushfires are still burning. To-date, the blazes have burned 6.67 million acres across Australia leaving a trail of destruction in their path. And one fire too big to put out, the smoke plaguing Sydney may be here to stay for months.
Put simply, Sydney is in a climate emergency, and it’s not over yet.