Tiananmen Square, December 27, 2007. Oded Balilty / AP
Asia's Airborne Toxic Event
Don't adjust your monitors: Natural light has become 10 to 25 percent dimmer in cities such as Beijing, Karachi, Shanghai and New Delhi as 3-km thick "brown clouds" of pollution spread across Asia and elsewhere, according to a new UN report.
As the picture above (and this alarming satellite photo we previously shared) indicate, countries like China are plagued by a vast Atmospheric Brown Cloud (ABC) made of "more than three-km thick layer of soot and other man-made particles that stretches from the Arabian Peninsula to China and the western Pacific Ocean," the result of burning fossil fuels and biomass. This may not be news to many, but the UN report makes vividly clear just how murky things have become.
"We used to think of this brown cloud as a regional problem, but now we realize its impact is much greater," Veerabhadran Ramanathan, who led the UN scientific panel, said. "When we see the smog one day and not the next, it just means it's blown somewhere else."How Far and How Dark?
The smog cloud stretches from the Arabian Peninsula to the Yellow Sea. During the spring, it sweeps across Asia past North and South Korea and Japan, and sometimes drifts as far east as California and Oregon.
According to the report, India as a whole had become darker by about two percent per decade between 1960 and 2000, while China had lost its natural light by about three percent to four percent per decade from the 1950s to the 1990s.
At least 13 major cities in Asia and other regions, including Beijing and New Delhi, get less sunlight because of the pollution. The other cities are Bangkok, Cairo, Dhaka, Karachi, Kolkata, Lagos, Mumbai, Seoul, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Teheran. The regions affected most are eastern China; the Indo-Gangetic plains stretching across parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar; and Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Effects of the Cloud
Just yesterday, reports the People's Daily, heavy smog was blamed for the deaths of six people in car accidents in Jiangsu province.
In subtler ways, the smog cloud is killing many more people across the region. Worsening air quality and agriculture in Asia poses "increasing risks to human health and food production for three billion people."
The Times continues:
For those who breathe the toxic mix, the impact can be deadly. Henning Rodhe, a professor of chemical meteorology at Stockholm University, estimates that 340,000 people in China and India die each year from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases that can be traced to the emissions from coal-burning factories, diesel trucks and kitchen stoves fueled by twigs.
"The impacts on health alone is a reason to reduce these brown clouds," he said, adding that in China, about 3.6 percent of the nation's annual gross domestic product, or $82 billion, is lost to the health effects of pollution.
The World Bank puts the deaths due to pollution in China alone at 750,000, according to a report last year. The figure was not released in the final draft after Chinese authorities protested, clearly worried about the impact such a number would have on the public. Not that they need a report to tell them: the country sees tens of thousands of pollution related protests each year.
The Climate Change Connection
In some cases the smog cloud is exacerbating the impact of global warming on Asia's already shrinking glaciers due to both darker aerosols that have a warming effect and pollution that ends up clogging the rivers fed by the glaciers.
"One of the most serious problems highlighted in the report is the documented retreat of the Hind Kush-Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers, which provide the head-waters for most Asian rivers, and thus have serious implications for the water and food security of Asia," said lead scientist Ramanathan, of the US-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
And as we reported previously, warmer temperatures due to warming make it harder for smog over cities to get dispersed.
In other cases, lighter-colored aerosols may be actually deflecting heat back into space, causing a cooling effect. That sounds good -- if you like sticking your head in the clouds.
"One of the impacts of this atmospheric brown cloud has been to mask the true nature of global warming on our planet," United Nations Environment Program head Achim Steiner said.
"We believe today's report brings ever more clarity to the ABC phenomena and in doing so must trigger an international response - one that tackles the twin threats of greenhouse gases and brown clouds and the unsustainable development that underpins both," said Veerabhadran.
But here's the upshot: could this sun-and-people-killing super smog be the global equivalent of the Donora "killer smog incident" that many credit with motivating US politicians to pass the Clean Air Act? Could this put more pressure on Asian governments to step up enforcement of pollution laws, and raise the consciousness of business and political leaders around the world to invest time and money in developing Asia's promising clean energy sector?
Let's *cough* hope so.
Also on TreeHugger:
Soot Prints: The Latest Export From China
"Brown Clouds" Over India Just as Bad as Greenhouse Gases
Effects of Smog
Anniversary of Killer Smog Event That Sparked US Clean Air Movement Commemorated in Pennsylvania Museum
A Match Made in Hell: Excess Carbon Dioxide and Air Pollution
Pollution Estimated To Cause 750,000 Premature Deaths Each Year In China
Huge Drop in Chinese Birth Defects After Local Coal Plant Closes
Alternative Energy in Asia
China Will Be the Biggest Wind Power Equipment Manufacturer by End of 2009
China Launches $3 Billion Fund For Clean Projects