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East Asia's Dirty Air Pollutes North America

GREENBELT, Maryland, March 17, 2008 (ENS) – Close to 15 percent of the air pollution over the western United States and Canada originates in East Asia, according to NASA researchers using the latest, most accurate satellite sensors.

Their study offers the first measurement-based estimate of the amount of pollution from East Asian forest fires, urban exhaust, and industrial production that makes its way to western North America in as short a time as one week.

“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,” said study co-author Hongbin Yu.


Air pollution blankets a large region of
central China so thickly that in places
it completely obscures the surface
from the satellite’s view. As
acquired by the MODIS instrument
on the Aqua and Terra satellites,
early 2003. (Image courtesy NASA)

“This is a significant percentage at a time when the U.S. is trying to decrease pollution emissions to boost overall air quality,” said Yu. “This means that any reduction in our emissions may be offset by the pollution aerosols coming from East Asia and other regions.”

Satellite data confirmed that almost 40 billion pounds of pollution aerosols were exported to the northwestern Pacific Ocean and nearly 10 billion pounds reached North America annually from East Asia over the four year study period.

Yu, an associate research scientist of the University of Maryland working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, grew up in China and taught there as a university professor, where he witnessed and studied how pollution from nearby power plants in China affected the local environment.

The world’s most populated country, China has experienced rapid industrial growth, massive human migrations to urban areas, and considerable expansion in automobile use over the last two decades.

In 20 years, the country has doubled its emissions of man-made pollutants to become the world’s largest emitter of pollution aerosols, tiny particles that are transported across the Pacific Ocean by rapid airstreams from East Asia.


Coal-fired power plant in the East China
province of Jiangsu (Photo by
China Resources Power Holdings Co)

Yu points out that the matter of pollution transport is global.

“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,” he said. “So we should not simply blame East Asia for this amount of pollution flowing into North America.”

In fact, in a model study published last November in the “Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics,” Mian Chin, also a co-author of this study and an atmospheric scientist at NASA Goddard, suggests that European pollution also makes a significant contribution to the pollution inflow to North America.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Sprectroradiometer, MODIS, instrument can distinguish between broad categories of particles in the air, and observes Earth’s entire surface every one to two days. This enables it to monitor movement of the East Asian pollution aerosols as they rise into the lower troposphere, the area of the atmosphere where we live and breathe, and make their way across the Pacific and up into the middle and upper regions of the troposphere.

“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,” said study co-author Lorraine Remer, a physical scientist and member of the MODIS science team at NASA Goddard.


Map showing movement of pollution from East Asia to North America (Map courtesy NASA)

The research team found that pollution movements fluctuate during the year, with the East Asian airstream carrying its largest load in spring and smallest in summer.

The most extensive East Asian export of pollution across the Pacific took place in 2003, sent aloft by record-breaking wildfires across vast forests of East Asia and Russia.

The pollution aerosols travel quickly, crossing the ocean and entering the atmosphere above North America in as little as one week.

“Using this imaging instrument, we cannot determine at what level of elevation in the atmosphere pollution travels. So, we do not have a way in this study to assess the degree of impact the pollution aerosols from China have on air quality here once they cross over to North America. We need improved technology to make that determination,” said Remer.

“Nevertheless, we realize there is indeed impact,” said Remer. “Particles like these have been linked to regional weather and climate effects through interactions between pollution aerosols and the Sun’s heat energy. Since pollution transport is such a broad global issue, it is important moving forward to extend this kind of study to other regions, to see how much pollution is migrating from its source regions to others, when, and how fast.”

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