On a recent trip to Vancouver, a great yellow tongue of dirty air greeted us as the ferry surged into the Strait of Georgia. Stretching out from Vancouver, the tongue licked at the shores of Galiano and Mayne islands.
“We’re travelling right into it,” Nature Boy said. “Gotta love these temperature inversions.”
For much of January, warm air sat like a pot lid over the south coast, trapping cooler air in valleys and against the mountains. At higher elevations, the warm temperatures messed up the ski hills. Down below, in the Lower Mainland, people stewed in chilled, polluted air.
And here, coiling out of the Fraser Valley, the corpse-coloured smog demonstrated, on a small scale, pollution’s potentially long reach. Wind, rain and pollution recognize no boundaries, and don’t stop at the shoreline, the farm gate or the border.
Now, the notorious smog of China’s cities and industrial centres has entered the picture.
Or rather, it has entered our consciousness, because that pollution has been entering our lungs and falling on our heads in small but steady quantities here on the eastern side of the North Pacific for years.
Atmospheric chemists started tracking it at the University of Washington’s mountaintop weather observatory in the 1990s. The observatory is located on Cheeka Peak, in the Olympic range.
Like us here in Victoria, it is perched on the western edge of the continent. Like us, it is constantly scrubbed clean by westerly winds that blow in over the Pacific Ocean. Like us, it should have the cleanest air in North America.
The researchers’ equipment, however, records a different story. It measures consistently high levels of carbon monoxide, ozone, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons, radon, soot and dust — all carried over from Asia on those deceptively clean winds.
Other studies, further inland and higher up, detect plumes of airborne mercury. The mercury carries the same signature as that found above Japan and Korea, directly in the path of winds blowing past China’s busiest, most polluted industrial centres.
However, the report we heard so much about these past few weeks fingers North Americans as a significant upstream cause of the pollution. We’ve cleaned up our industry by outsourcing it and the pollution it generates to Asia, where environmental standards and wages are lower.
Our high-consumption lifestyles provide us with “made in China” air that makes some of us cough consumptively, gives us heart disease and even, according to the World Health Organization, cancer.
Our consumption, via Asia’s smog, is also changing global weather patterns. Some scientists believe Asia’s pollution affects upper-atmosphere circulation and influences cloud formation, precipitation and storm intensity around the world.
The Lower Mainland’s terrain can limit local, lower-atmosphere circulation and trap air pollution. With only five to 25 per cent of the noxious chemicals in the air there coming from Asia, much of the other 75 to 95 per cent of the airborne pollutants must be produced closer to home.
Here in Victoria, we likely see even less of the long-distance pollution at ground level. We lack surrounding mountains to hold it in, and temperature inversions rarely choke us. We also have less heavy industry, and we send much of our vehicle exhaust, wood smoke and so on, over to Bellingham and Everett.
A spot of sunshine glimmers through the murk, however. London, England, rid itself of its Dickensian pea-soupers with the 1956 Clean Air Act, which banned household use of coal as fuel.
Los Angeles’ air is practically squeaky clean today, compared with what it was like in the 1970s. And the Beijing Olympics demonstrated that China, too, can clear its skies.
China’s government recently passed laws to reduce air pollution, which will benefit everyone. Whether officials will implement and enforce the measures is another question.
Whether we curb our own endless demands for the inexpensive manufactured goods that fuel China’s pollution production also remains to be seen.
Think of it as a way to save money, keep ourselves and our land and waterways clean, and maybe — just maybe — lessen the intensity of future storms.