Aerial photo depicting the Blue Angels performing with exhaust over city landscape.

OPINION | In a Climate Emergency, Is Seafair Obsolete?

by Jill Freidberg


As I write, we are exiting the longest heat wave in Pacific Northwest history. Last year, we watched freeways buckle from the heat. BIPOC elders died in South End homes with no air-conditioning. Millions of shellfish cooked to death at low tide. In four short years, we’ve added “Fire Season” to our calendars, witnessed historic and devastating floods across the state, and watched an endangered Southern Resident killer whale carry her dead calf for 17 days. With each occurrence, the City, County, and State have issued declarations about the urgency with which we must respond to climate change.

A tradition built around fossil-fuel-guzzling, exhaust-spewing jets and boats is not in line with those declarations.

It’s true. Seafair is tradition. Depending on who you ask, the precursor to and inspiration for Seafair was the Central District’s Mardi Gras celebration. Through the second half of the 20th century, Seafair offered everything from log-tossing competitions, bike races, a “husband calling” contest at Seward Park, flower shows, jazz festivals, and Aqua Follies. Seafair had already been an annual occurrence, a tradition if you will, for 16 years before the Blue Angels were added to the list of activities.

Black-and-white vintage photo depicting elegantly dressed women wearing crowns riding a Mardi Gras parade float.
Mardi Gras royalty riding on parade float on Aug. 5, 1952. (Photo: Albert J. Smith Sr., courtesy of MOHAI, Al Smith Collection, 17597)

We know so much more now than we did when Seafair was founded, in 1950. Practices that went unquestioned by many residents and lawmakers at that time include: 1) housing discrimination based on race, 2) offering university classes on eugenics, 3) dumping PCBs into the Duwamish River, and 4) capturing Salish Sea killer whales for entertainment in sea parks and aquariums. While we have a long way to go in righting those wrongs, we have shifted our behaviors, as a region, as we learn. 

Just as we, eventually, could no longer look away from the organized outcry against legalized housing discrimination, let’s not look away from everything we now know about our impact on the climate. In the four days that the Blue Angels practice and perform over Seattle, they consume 69,000 gallons of fuel. When San Francisco fought (and won) to banish the annual Blue Angels show from their city, Elizabeth Dougherty calculated, in her letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, that the Blue Angels were emitting 745,056 lbs of CO2 in a two-day period, not including practice flights and not including the carbon footprint of the hydroplanes, which also run on jet fuel.  

Each year, when Sunday afternoon of Seafair weekend rolls around, a thick cloud of brown air hovers over King County. We now have research confirming what many have known for decades: Air pollution is significantly worse in the region’s historically redlined and BIPOC neighborhoods, like Rainier Beach and South Park. With summer temperatures getting hotter every year, and wildfire smoke now arriving like clockwork every August or September, can we really justify the public health impact of putting more exhaust into the air, all in the name of tradition, nostalgia, Navy recruitment, and entertainment?

Photo depicting a landscape view of South Seattle and Mount Rainier obscured by smog.
View of Mount Rainier with morning smog in 2003. (Photo courtesy of the City of Seattle Municipal Archives, 125153)
Photo depicting a Seattle street where Smith Tower is obscured by smoke in the distance.
Smith Tower obscured by wildfire smoke, September 13, 2020. (Photo courtesy of The Seattle Public Library Special Collections Online, COVID-19 Community Collection, spl_cvd_00018_029)

Seattle has changed.

Many of the people who live here now did not grow up with Seafair.

Many of the people who live here now care more about the climate than they do about fast jets and loud boats.

Many of the people who live here now are refugees from countries where the sound of F-18s signal death and destruction.

Many of the people who live here now have endured three straight years of loss and sickness. 

If Seattle has changed, Seafair can change too. No need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Maybe we don’t need to resurrect the “husband calling” contest, but bring back the Aqua Follies! Let’s fill Lake Washington with spectacles that spotlight innovation, like solar and wind-powered craft, and contests that test human possibility, like swim races or kayak relays. Let’s ask the people who live here how we can preserve tradition while doing better by the planet and protecting the residents most impacted by Seafair weekend. Let’s demand that city, county, and state lawmakers demonstrate their commitment to climate action by making 2022 the last year for jets and boats. It’s time.

Photo depicting the Babynetts Drill Team in purple costumes complete with hot-pink boots and cowboy hats march and perform in a parade.
The Babynetts Drill Team performing at University District Jr. Grand Seafair Parade in 2002. (Photo: Erik Stuhang, courtesy of the City of Seattle Municipal Archives, 131135)

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📸 Featured Image: The United States Navy Blue Angels during a 2019 air show. (Photo courtesy of the United States Navy Blue Angels. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.)

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