NASA Study: 15% Of America's Air Pollution Is From Asia
March 19, 2008 11:15 AM
The new NASA study relied on the high-tech imaging instrument known as MODIS, contained aboard NASA's Terra satellite.
A chart detailing the airflow over the Pacific. Note the airflow towards the polar region that crosses from Asia, near Japan and China up towards British Columbia and down the west coast of the U.S.
Is poor air quality in America the fault of China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan?
There's been much conjecture that China's vast industrialization produces heavy pollution, not only to East Asia, but to North America as well. Air currents, which flow between Asia and North America, are thought to carry industrial pollution overseas to the U.S. and Canada. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are also extremely industrialized and highly populated and also contribute significant airborne emissions of toxic sulfur and nitrogen compounds into the air.
Theories about pollution drift from East Asia to North America remained unexamined until now. As part of NASA's ongoing efforts to
track pollution and environment changes via satellite
, NASA has launched a
major initiative to track and carefully measure the flow of air pollution
between East Asia and North America. The study looks to detect and quantitatively analyze pollution from three primary sources -- forest fires, urban exhaust, and industrial pollution.
cleared vast tracks of land. Much of this land is cleared by slash and burn methods, which release airborne pollution. Accidental forest fires also occur frequently. Further, China's automobile population has skyrocket. Many of the automobiles do not have up to date exhaust controls as American automobiles do. This leads to the release of carbon monoxide and other pollutants. China's network of factories and coal plants pump literally tons of toxins into the atmosphere, helping to make China the
world leader in greenhouse gas production
efforts to adopt environmentally friendly technology
, its reduction efforts are currently outpaced greatly by its growth.
One of the NASA researchers on the study, Hongbin Yu, an associate research scientist of the University of Maryland Baltimore County working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., grew up in China and witnessed first hand the damage done on the environment and the local population's health by the uncontrolled expansion. Yu and his team will be working for the first time to analyze aerosol flow in the fast moving airstream that crosses the Pacific, traveling from East Asia to North America.
Aerosols are a standard type of air pollution, consisting of a suspension of droplets. These droplets can contain many toxic chemicals. High aerosol exposure in industrial settings can lead to many health problems, the impact of lesser degrees of exposure has not been entirely examined.
The study's first results come courtesy of measurements from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), an instrument on NASA's Terra satellite. The results, which will be published in the
American Geophysical Union’s Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres
, confirm that between 2002 and 2005 East Asia exported nearly 18 teragrams of pollution into the air stream over the Pacific, with 4.5 teragrams reaching North America. A teragram is a unit used to measure atmospheric mass of aerosol pollution. One teragram equals 2.2 billion pounds, so the study shows that nearly 10 billion pounds of Asian aerosol pollution reached American shores in a 3 year span.
Yu puts this in perspective, stating, "We used the latest satellite capabilities to distinguish industrial pollution and smoke from dust transported to the western regions of North America from East Asia. Looking at four years of data from 2002 to 2005 we estimated the amount of pollution arriving in North America to be equivalent to about 15 percent of local emissions of the U.S. and Canada. This is a significant percentage at a time when the U.S. is trying to decrease pollution emissions to boost overall air quality. This means that any reduction in our emissions may be offset by the pollution aerosols coming from East Asia and other regions."
According to Yu, though East Asia is not solely at fault as pollution travels with the airstream from North America to other continents as well. He states that the study only seeks to analyze the Asian pollution input into North America's air. He explains, "Our study focused on East Asian pollution transport, but pollution also flows from Europe, North America, the broader Asian region and elsewhere, across bodies of water and land, to neighboring areas and beyond. So we should not simply blame East Asia for this amount of pollution flowing into North America."
Mian Chin, also a co-author of this study and an atmospheric scientist at NASA Goddard agrees with Yu's cautions and states that he believes that much of North America's pollution may come from Europe as well. NASA may carry out additional studies to examine this possibility.
Lorraine Remer, a physical scientist and member of the MODIS science team at NASA Goddard points out that the study is a cutting edge experience that relies on the most modern sensor technology. MODIS can distinguish between many types of atmospheric particles and can accurately track them as they rise out of the troposphere, where we live and breath, into the upper atmosphere, where they are transported overseas. Says Remer, "Satellite instruments give us the ability to capture more accurate measurements, on a nearly daily basis across a broader geographic region and across a longer time frame so that the overall result is a better estimate than any other measurement method we’ve had in the past."
The greatest pollution influx occurred in 2003, due a set of large forest fires in East Asia and Russia. The researchers determined that it takes approximately a week for pollutants to travel from Asia to North America.
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