Oxygen Oracle

NB: Spec-reported for The New Yorker‘s Talk of the Town, which… did not have the courtesy to reply.


In Western Montana, where wildfire smoke pollution has succeeded in doing what even winters do not – chase people indoors – Treasure Staters have been reading to make sense of the end times. Surely, it’s Revelations for some, but those after more earthbound succor have been consulting another deity: Missoula County’s Oxygen Oracle.

If you don’t count body-slamming reporters (Rep. Greg Gianforte) and farming accidents (Sen. Jon Tester), Montana is as short on government poetry as any place not counting Washington (“covfefe”). So the chatter about the Missoula County Health Department’s Air Quality Blog has hovered, if you were to give its own quality index, near the cult B-side mark of the scale. The locals trade Oracle-isms. (“It’s not a real smoke party until the Washington State smoke gets here.”) They argue about greatest hits. “I would recommend scrolling back to August 24th,” one acquaintance wrote recently. “It’s a particularly jaunty one.”

“You probably noticed things got a bit hazy last night,” that Monday morning’s report began. “I’m sure by now, you all know that when the sun turns a bright magenta it means we’re seeing a lot of particulate in the air. (Of course, it is 2020. Maybe the dinosaurs are coming back, and a glowing pink sun is their herald. We will turn to it to welcome our reptilian overlords.)”

Eight hours later, the Oracle had to reference even more fantastical beings to address the wishful misperception that precipitation clears away smoke. “If you remember the Smoky Fog Monster from November 30, 2012,” the Oracle, who is hardly concerned with the future alone, reminded its audience, “you’re familiar with the phenomenon of smoke being unconcerned with moisture… My point is simply that it can be rainy and smoky at the same time. (If a unicorn can be a horse and a narwhale at the same time, the outside can be rainy and smoky at the same time.)”

The Oracle is not without error. Wednesday, August 26: “Apparently the fires in Oregon heard me poo-pooing their size over the last couple days. There are a few fires sending out respectable plumes this morning, and they are, of course, aimed straight at us. Word to the wise – don’t belittle natural disasters where they can hear you. Keep that nonsense to yourself.”
As August turned into an even dimmer September, the Oracle stepped up the mugging to raise spirits at least a bit closer to smoke levels: “We will see some afternoon winds to move the air around this afternoon. (Of course, if the only air to be moved is smoky, it just means the smoke will move past us faster and with more energy. Who had caffeinated smoke on their 2020 bingo card?)”
By mid-month, there was no way around the stubborn facts: “Once (if?) the inversion breaks, the only thing that will likely change is the smoke on the ground will lift up and the smoke overhead will come down. So, you know, unless you’re bored with the smoke that was here all night and want some younger, zestier smoke, there isn’t much to look forward to.”

The Oracle is Sarah Coefield. Coefield has been working for the Missoula County Health Department since 2010, but she pivoted to smoke-quality standup in 2017. “It was an apocalyptically bad wildfire season,” she said. “It was emotionally scarring for anyone who lived through it – a period of extreme darkness and sadness.” She started sending out jazzed-up, humorous versions of her county air-quality updates to a private list of about 200 recipients. “My boss found out and said to put all of it online. She green-lit the dumb jokes.”

It seemed to have an effect, not least because the jokes made the facts easier to digest. Mash notes started pouring in from Missoulians who now understood how “inversions” behaved. “‘Smangry’ is now part of my vocabulary,” one note said. “I could go on and on… and Dang! I want to.” Another: “You have helped keep me sane through this crazy smoke-filled summer.”

Coefield was a graduate student chasing great-horned owls near the Tittabawassee River in Michigan when she began to sense that ordinary people could use some help figuring out what was in their air and water. (A Dow Chemical plant had filled the Tittabawassee with dioxins, and owls are apex predators – the food chain would have passed up evidence of pollution.) “I climbed a lot of trees,” she said. “I canoed down the river broadcasting owl hoots. We needed property owners’ permission to put nests up on their trees. Once you told them they could get a pic with a baby owl out of it, they were pretty into it. But when you talked with them, you realized they weren’t sure what was going on. It was whatever the environmentalists were saying versus what Dow Chemical was saying. Well, here’s the actual science. I’m not an environmentalist. I’m a scientist who cares about the environment. Those are different things.”

But Coefield was “desperate to get back to Montana.” You hear that a lot from people who were born here and left, and when you ask them why, they’re not sure what to say, as if you needing an answer means one is unlikely to help. (If one may dabble in some logical deduction himself, this suggests that even wildfire smoke – which, Coefield has written, is “flashy and weird, and if anyone tells you they can reliably predict its behavior, they’re lying” – is more explicable than Montana addiction.)

Coefield’s father had served as an air-quality meteorologist for 30 years, and, though Coefield applied for the county’s air-quality job, she had thought smoke science was the most boring job ever – “how super-sexy to be sitting in an office and you can’t see anything.” But when the Health Department called, she had a hard time saying no. “I love science so much,” she said. “It’s so cool. I want people to see why it’s so cool.” One of the reasons is that with science, changing your mind is the point. “That’s why we have hypotheses. You’re allowed to have changing understanding.”

This year’s smoke may have been milder than “the high pressure ridge of doom of 2017,” but the people’s need for hijinks may have been greater. “Jeezey Petes,” Coefield said, recalling this year’s letters. “People really seem to appreciate pictures of my cat.” (September 19: “Those blue lumps on the horizon are mountains. The fluffball wearing a pink coat is a cat.”)

Asked to reflect on the science communication coming from the federal government, she said: “You have to look at it through the lens of how it will benefit the Administration. But that’s not true of the specialists. They are career professionals who care deeply about the environments, and when they give their presentations, that’s real science. But that doesn’t get to the public.”

If federal messaging is politicized, and scientifically accurate messaging doesn’t get publicized, how does an ordinary American find her way to the truth? There was a long pause. “That’s the million-dollar question,” Coefield said finally. “Public agencies are supposed to serve the public.”

To test out the idea that humor could help with hot air, it was proposed that the million-dollar question was actually whether Steve Bullock was funnier than Steve Daines. Coefield was a public servant, and she wouldn’t say.

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