The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lost in a wall of smoke: Why so many people couldn’t see Washington’s Fourth of July fireworks

D.C.'s air quality tanked to worst in the nation in the smoky cloud.

A cloud of smoke obscures the view of fireworks from downtown Washington. (Jason Samenow/The Washington Post) (Jason Samenow)

By all accounts, Washington’s Fourth of July fireworks were spectacular, if you could actually see them. Many people could not.

The fireworks and lack of wind created a towering wall of smoke so thick that it not only ruined many views but also caused Washington’s air quality to plummet to worst in the nation. In parts of the District, the pollution was likely “as bad as India/China at its worst” tweeted Dan Goldberg, an air quality researcher at George Washington University.

Within minutes of the fireworks exploding into the sky, smoke filled the air above and downwind of where they were ignited (behind the Lincoln Memorial and at West Potomac Park). A lack of wind allowed the smoke to collect, building a giant wall that partially or completely obscured views between Southwest Washington and downtown, including along the Mall.

Instead of a dazzling Technicolor display, many disappointed spectators only saw what looked like fog illuminated by dull spotlights.

“BUMMER. Smokey haze made it look more like the Northern Lights than fireworks,” tweeted @BlakeMcCoyDC.

Near the Washington Monument, many spectators departed less than halfway through the display.

While winds weren’t completely calm, at speeds under 5 mph they weren’t strong enough to disperse the smoke cloud, which crawled to the east and northeast. This prevailing southwesterly wind direction did push the smoke away from the Virginia side of the Potomac River. While the view from the District stank, it was fantastic in Rosslyn.

It was one heck of a fireworks show. And the fly-overs were cool, too. (Photos)

Every year, the fireworks create a cloud of smoke and, depending on the wind direction, someone’s view is usually obscured, although sometimes winds are strong enough to more quickly disperse the smoke. In early July, the wind often has a southerly and/or westerly component, which can make viewing from the north and east difficult.

But this year, the abundance of smoke, dearth of wind, high humidity, and an atmospheric inversion, which trapped the smoke near the ground, made things worse than usual. As the smoke engulfed the District, its air quality tanked.

Ryan Stauffer, an air quality meteorologist, tweeted that the concentration of fine particular matter (PM 2.5) at North Capitol Street was the highest in the nation following the show. “The monitor along Benning Rd NE and DC-295 had two hours of almost 500 micrograms per cubic meter,” he tweeted. “Those numbers rival highest values from the California wildfires last year.”

Goldberg called the pollution “quite remarkable and, extremely hazardous.”

The last time the pollution following the fireworks was this bad was 2010, Stauffer added.

July 4 fireworks spark astonishing spike in air pollution, NOAA study finds

Below, find some more photos and reactions from disappointed spectators who found themselves stuck in a smoky cloud on the wrong side of the wind.