Minnesotans live for the summer.
We survive ungodly winters for the summer. In some households like mine, traveling out of state during the summer is borderline verboten. (If you only had three months out of the year to enjoy God's country, why would you give up your season tickets?)
But with a record high number of air quality alerts this summer, it seems like we're being cheated out of something we desperately count on and even need.
On the heels of a brutally long winter and a cold late spring, the Canadian wildfires have put the Upper Midwest and other parts of the country in a chokehold. These are supposed to be our golden days of summer, and now some of our precious time outdoors has been rendered off-limits, even dangerous. The smoke is stealing some of the most restorative and necessary perks about living in Minnesota.
On the bad days, eyeball-stinging haze has closed pools, canceled summer camps and parks and rec programs, cleared beaches, shelved softball games and put the kibosh on movies in the park. Don't even think about opening those windows to get some fresh air.
Sure, we have eight more weeks until Labor Day, you say — don't be a whiner, Laura! (Or worse yet, don't rattle the weather gods.) I'll point out that forecasters warn that the outlook for the remaining weeks in Canada is hot and dry, which means we should probably get used to more unhealthy haze headed our way.
By now, we know how to roll with the punches. If COVID has taught us anything, it's how to adapt to dystopia. Those N95 masks that have been sitting untouched in the box might get some face time again, this time to block out smoke particles.
Air Quality Index (AQI) is the new case count. Even those of us without asthma are now thrust into a world where we are checking airnow.gov, the EPA's AQI website, to monitor the numbers and evaluate what's best for our well-being and our families.
We do not take child care for granted, knowing it can be hastily canceled. Even my 10-year-old and his friends are aware that summer camp can be moved indoors when the AQI hits 130, as it did last Wednesday when we received our 23rd air-quality alert of the year.
Parents are left with a dilemma: Do we allow our kids to play outdoors, or confine them inside to avoid hazardous air? When my son had trouble breathing in the haze, in part because of a lingering cough, I kept him home from soccer practice. But I let him bike outside with friends on another day. Who knows which decision was right? When child care is scrapped, the tension only rises for parents who don't have the option to work from home.
It's uncanny to read news reports likening the day's air quality in the Twin Cities to that of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Jakarta, Indonesia. As Star Tribune environmental reporter Chloe Johnson and Madeline Heim of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted, this summer's smoke, heat and drought prove that the Upper Midwest is far from immune to the effects of climate change. While Minnesotans are blessed with water resources and don't need to worry about hurricanes, we are no climate haven.
Will our personal brush with global warming translate into a call to action? Most of the wildfires in Canada were sparked by lightning, but research shows that fire season is intensifying with the rise in greenhouse gas emissions. As Minnesotans, we're experiencing the direct effects of disaster that remind us of the things we most value about our state.
As I write this column, I'm spoiled by the morning tremolo of loons on a lake right outside my window. We're spending the holiday week up north at a cabin rental. The sky is clear and the sun entices us to play. My kids are living their best Minnesotan lives, reeling in rock bass from the dock and swimming in turquoise waters.
This is summer as we know it, and I'm clinging to these perfect, yet dwindling, days.