Pollution From Asia is Circling the Globe

The Side Effects of Asia's Economic Growth

by Sean Hinds, age 17

The regions of South and East Asia, which include China, India and Indonesia, are experiencing enormous economic and industrial growth.  These developments are not without consequences.  

Manufacturers and developers is the region burn massive amounts of fossil fuels that are harmful to the atmosphere.  Yet pollution from Asia may have even farther-reaching consequences than scientists once predicted.   

The National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado recently conducted a study in the Asian monsoon region, which encompasses much of southern Asia.  Through computer modeling and satellite imagery, scientists monitored the air currents generated by summer monsoons, which rapidly carry air upward.  The Brewer-Dobson Effect, an air cycle between the atmosphere and the stratosphere (about 20-25 miles up), has long been known to be active in the tropics.  Researchers are now examining this effect over South Asia—a much more polluted area than most other tropical regions.   

Researchers now realize that summer monsoon air currents can lift industrial pollutants from the troposphere all the way to the lower stratosphere; here these pollutants can easily circle the earth for years. Sometimes they break down, at other times they re-descend.  Among the many chemicals Asian factories commonly spew into the atmosphere are carbon, water vapor, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen cyanide.   

Hydrogen cyanide originates from the combustion of organic material like trees, which people regularly burn to clear land for farms and industry. This dangerous chemical serves as a good indicator of atmospheric pollution. Most other tropical regions, where the Brewer-Dobson Effect is at work, exhibit low levels of the chemical. Much of it simply disintegrates into the ocean.  South Asia, where the chemical does not disintegrate, shows much higher levels.  Each summer, monsoons waft hydrogen cyanide, along with ozone, water vapor and other particles up into the stratosphere. There they can easily travel the globe.  Recent satellite observations detect movements of hydrogen cyanide into the stratosphere over the tropics, and it is indeed circling the Earth.   

Emissions from the heavy industrialization of South Asia may have more calamitous effects than pollution elsewhere.  For example, when sulfur reaches the stratosphere through monsoon air currents, it can form aerosols, chemicals that impact the ozone layer.  Changes like these may alter the amount of light that penetrates the atmosphere; this could in turn affect global temperatures.   

Scientists have yet to determine the effect climate change could have on the monsoon’s transportation of pollutants, or vise versa.  However, they do know that if rapid industrial expansion and unchecked consumption of fossil fuels continues in South Asia—which appears inevitable—devastating consequences could result.  

If this study demonstrates anything, it’s that pollution in one region of the world can affect the entire global atmosphere.

[Sources: National Science Foundation; The Wall Street Journal]

Sean, Great article and an important topic to keep not only keep in mind, but act on! What is going on on the other side of the Earth really does make a difference in the lives of those of us in Dane County! – Ashley BuenningMadison (2011-02-07 20:17)
Sean, nicely done. You explained a lot of complex concepts but made it easy to follow and understand. – Annie ShaoMadison (2011-02-22 17:55)
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