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Thursday, March 25

Convergence, Part 2: Yellow Dust

This essay picks up from Tuesday's post, Convergence: orange lava, red rust, yellow dust, blue moon

Every year millions of people, the sticklers among us, engage in a ritual called Spring Cleaning. Copious amounts of dust that accumulated in neglected nooks and crannies during the winter are vacuumed, shaken, swept, and otherwise removed from our domiciles. Where the dust goes from there is not our concern. Every year Mother Nature engages in the very same ritual and with the same obviousness to where the dust goes.

Thusly, every Spring, Korean Air has to wash Yellow Dust off jets arriving from China. The dust, a corrosive oxide when it reacts with moisture on the ground, is not easy to remove. According to this article in the Korea Times it takes 6,000 liters of water and between 7-8 hours for 9 workers to wash down just one B-747 jumbo jet at a cost of 3 million won. And because Yellow Dust is a pollutant, the washing has to be done at special sites where waste water disposal plants are located.

Think of that, the next time you board a Korean Air flight, and be sure to tell the pilot how spiffy the plane looks. Compliments might ease a little of the sting that the Korean government feels about the situation.

"We give the Chinese trees to plant," snapped one official. "But they plant them where they want to plant them. Along roads."

True, true, you're not going to do much to halt the march of desertification by beautifying the highways. But the ping side of the ping-pong table is that China's Yellow Dust storms have been going on since time immemorial. One of the earliest written records of the storms is from 1150 BC, during the Shang Dynasty.

Yes but during the past decade or so these storms have become more toxic due to China's massive industrialization schemes. The winds sweep up everything that's not nailed down and is light enough to ride the dust plume, or can be pulled up the plume's electrical charge. And the winds are only getting fiercer and more frequent. So it's not just sand, silt and dust that's being dumped by the ton onto cities and croplands around a large area of East Asia and parts of Russia. From a 2001 report quoted in Wikipedia's article on Yellow Dust (also called Asian Dust):

Sulfur (an acid rain component), soot, ash, carbon monoxide, and other toxic pollutants including heavy metals (such as mercury, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, lead, zinc, copper) and other carcinogens, often accompany the dust storms, as well as viruses, bacteria, fungi, pesticides, antibiotics, asbestos, herbicides, plastic ingredients, combustion products as well as hormone-mimicking phthalates.
Ah yes, but these Yellow Dust storms, as with dust storms that swirl out of Australia, the Sahara and other regions, are also life-giving: Central and South American rain forests get most of their mineral nutrients from the Sahara; iron-poor ocean regions get iron; and dust in Hawaii increases plantain growth.
The storms are getting more destructive with every year that passes:
Often, people are advised to avoid or minimize outdoor activities, depending on severity of storms. For those already with asthma or respiratory infections, it can be fatal. The dust has been shown to increase the daily mortality rate in one affected region by 1.7%. ... The dust storms also affect wildlife particularly hard, destroying crops, habitat, and toxic metals interfering with reproduction. Coral are hit particularly hard. Toxic metals propagate up the food chain, from fish to higher mammals. Air visibility is reduced, including canceled flights, ground travel, outdoor activities, and can be correlated to significant loss of economic activity. Japan has reported washed clothes stained yellow.
Probably no one has ever totted up the grand total for the cost of these storms because they can affect a number of countries. The March 20 storm that blew into Beijing and other parts of northern mainland China went on to slam Hong Kong, and Taiwan and South Korea were hit with the worst Yellow Dust storms on record from just that one storm.
March 20, 2010: Massive sandstorm turns Beijing’s streets yellow. (Reuters)
(TIME - March 22)
Springtime sandstorms are common in China, as Siberian winds blow dust and sand off the Gobi desert across east Asia — sometimes as far as North America. But the size of the storm that began Saturday [March 20] has surpassed what China's capital has seen recently. The storms began in desert areas of the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia and the adjacent central Asian nation of Mongolia, which is suffering from the combination of a dry summer followed by a brutally cold winter. The UN has set aside $3.7 million in aid to help Mongolia recover from the extreme conditions, which have left thousands short of food and fuel and killed more than 2 million sheep and other livestock.

In China, the annual sandstorms have been exacerbated by desertification. Agricultural expansion, overgrazing and population growth starting in the 1950s strained already dry regions in western China. By 2004, 27% of the country's landmass suffered from some degree of desertification, according to the Chinese Meteorological Administration. China has invested heavily in planting trees and small shrubs over former croplands to prevent the spread of arid land eastward. The government has reported the rate of desertification has slowed after 2000, but says climate change and other environmental pressures means more than 186,000 square miles (300,000 sq km) of land are still at risk. [...]
Something must be done to get these storms under control!

Dust Masks Acid Rain 'Time Bomb' in China
Dust storms may be a blessing in disguise since they neutralize sulfuric and nitric acid particles before they fall to Earth.

By Michael Reilly, Mar 31, 2009, Discovery News

Powerful dust storms that whip across China's north and central deserts are infamous for blotting out the skies over Beijing. They wreak havoc with transportation and industry, and pose a serious health risk to the 17 million people who live there.

But they may be a blessing in disguise. According to a new study, the dust is protecting the city from a horrible case of acid rain.

And government reforestation and farmland management programs may be backfiring, inviting corrosive precipitation into the country's capital region.

Acid rain is a known scourge in China's heavily industrialized southern and northeastern reaches, threatening soil quality, forests and food supplies.

But for all its smog-ridden reputation, Beijing remains comparatively acid-free; an island amid the country's sea of coal-burning, sulfur-belching power plants. The reason is the region's regular dust storms. The calcium-rich dust acts as a buffer, neutralizing sulfuric and nitric acid particles before they fall to Earth.

"Beijing city is surrounded by some desert areas," Zhifan Xu and Guilin Han of the Chinese Academy of Sciences wrote in their study, which appears in the April issue of the journal Atmospheric Environment. "The soil dust from these areas can contribute a large amount of alkaline material to precipitation and to neutralize the acidic ions."

Xu and Han found the effect was greatest in late spring and summer, when westerly winds periodically howl out of arid regions, and entrain dust on their way to Beijing. During such episodes, rainwater reached a peak pH of 7.62 and was routinely measured above the preindustrial global background level of 5.2.

But the researchers note that average pH has dropped 1.5 units since the 1980s. Government efforts to stem deforestation, desertification, and topsoil erosion in agricultural areas are at least partly to blame.

"In order to improve air quality in Beijing, the Chinese government has taken some powerful measures to control sand-dust storms in northwest China since the 1990s," they wrote. Since then, calcium measured in rainwater has fallen by nearly 40 percent.

"This is a time bomb waiting to happen in China," Gene Likens of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York said. "Once you clean up the dust particles, all that material that was buffering and neutralizing the acidity is gone." [...]
All this points to another blessing in disguise, another conversion of events on the human timeline: The economic depression, which saw Americans and others in the Western world having to back on purchases of Chinese goods, shuttered many factories in China. That's a tough way to cut emissions that create acid rain. So now it's time to put down the ping-pong paddles and think.

As you can see, much time and money has been dedicated to fighting the wrong war, although I'm happy to report that China's government, as is their habit in many matters, has fudged about the success of their war against the deserts. Actually, every time they plant masses of trees and bushes in the barren areas, the wind howls out of the deserts and blows over most of the vegetation.

However, this Deus Ex Machina approach to problem-solving carries serious downsides, and it's only a stopgap measure. To continue with Gene Likens's observations:
The problem isn't dust, though. It's the sulfur emissions from coal-fired power plants, and nitrogen oxides emitted from automobiles and airplanes that are only now coming to the fore as China improves its dust problem.

The situation is much the same in the northeastern United States and Canada, though further advanced. There, natural buffers -- calcium magnesium in soils and bedrock -- are so depleted from half a century of acid rain that forests continue to suffer to this day, even though federal regulations regulations have cut acid deposition in half.

At this rate it's just a matter of time until China's dusty protection is gone, too.

"The only way to solve the problem is to attack the root causes, the fossil fuel-based emissions," Likens said. "We're going to have to start doing something very different."
Doing something "very different" has been hard because the most direct solution has been lost in the shuffle of grandiose schemes to stop 'climate change.' Add to this, every environmental faction has put in their two cents' worth on how best to deal with China's dust storms.

Yes, poor land management and rampant desertification are a huge problem, as is the Yellow Dust itself. I interject that no small part of the problem is that Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea are not going to continue spitting toxic dust out of their mouths while paying through the nose to clean it up. The Chinese government's silly attempt to shift the blame to Mongolia (see the TIME article) fools no one. There will be grave political ramifications if the dust storms continue to increase in frequency and severity. But first things first. And here China is fortunate in that the United States has already done the heavy lifting when it comes to understanding acid rain:
In 1980, the U.S. Congress passed an Acid Deposition Act. This Act established a 10-year research program under the direction of the National Acidic Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP). NAPAP looked at the entire problem. It enlarged a network of monitoring sites to determine how acidic the precipitation actually was, and to determine long term trends, and established a network for dry deposition. It looked at the effects of acid rain and funded research on the effects of acid precipitation on freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, historical buildings, monuments, and building materials. It also funded extensive studies on atmospheric processes and potential control programs.
This research effort led to the Acid Rain Program, a cap and trade system designed to control emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
Overall, the Program's cap and trade program has been successful in achieving its goals. Since the 1990s, SO2 emissions have dropped 40%, and according to the Pacific Research Institute, acid rain levels have dropped 65% since 1976. ... However, this was significantly less successful than conventional regulation in the European Union, which saw a decrease of over 70% in SO2 emissions during the same time period [...]
I haven't studied the issue but I'd assume France's extensive use of nuclear power plants has had a big influence on those good numbers. If so, the United States lost much precious time in delaying building of such plants.

In any event, the Acid Rain Program is a good use of the cap and trade idea. Unlike current attempts to apply cap and trade to CO2 emissions, the ARP deals with a narrow and highly objective phenomenon, which has been thoroughly researched.

From all this, one might read the bizarre snowstorm during the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit as an editorial comment. It's a snow job to attempt to persuade China that they must do their share to save the planet by applying cap and trade to their CO2 emissions. Better to start with the reasonable stuff: Just try to get some of those acidic ions under control.

As a spur to concerted action in that direction it's helpful to know that human activity is not the only cause of acid rain. It's also caused by volcanic eruptions
releasing sulfur dioxide.

If those who read the first Convergence essay are suddenly sitting up straight and blinking rapidly -- yes, well: the eruption of Iceland's Laki volcanic system in 1783-1784, shot an estimated 120 tons of sulfur dioxide into the skies. That caused what's known as the "Laki haze" to descend on Europe.

Humanity could dodge the bullet this time around, if only for the foreseeable future. Yet even if the Laki system doesn't go haywire, the Katla eruption, if it happens, would be a reality check. There will be global consequences just from an isolated major eruption on Katla; the only question would be how severe.

For Katla watchers, web cameras have been set up to record the doings. Here's a March 24 report on how things are going since the Eyjafjallajokull eruption:
The volcano at incredibly powerful Mount Katla in Iceland might yet blow its lid, according to scientists quoted in news reports today. Incredible fountains of orange and black lava have since Saturday been burning through the white surface of the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in the southern part of the country. The activity is only on the rise as plumes of steam stretch into the sky. Magma is still flowing into the volcano area, meaning it could grow, according to Stöd 2.

"Eyjafjallajokull hardly makes a move without Mount Katla wanting to get in on the action," said Pall Einarsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland to Reuters. "It is therefore of utmost importance to watch events carefully." [...]
See the website for a photograph of Katla's last major explosion, in 1918, and for links to the web cams.

Tomorrow: Convergence, Part 3: Blue Moon.


Even if the storms didn't blow over the newly planted vegetation, the desperate Chinese would surely eat it, burn it, or otherwise put it to use.

It must be hell living through those...

BTW, the Chinese have stepped up the building of nuclear power plants. That's a good thing except we know how careless sovietized folks can be. Chernobyl couldn't have happened in an un-sovietized country....say, France.

I'm waiting for the Israelis to invent something to replace the internal combustion engine. If anyone can do pull that off, surely it is they. Not only do they have the brains for it but they also have the motivation.

No wonder Gates devotes so much money to educating young Israelis.

Can't wait for the Blue Moon. BTW, that's the name of my favorite greasy spoon, even though they do smoke there. Despite the city laws...

Must go look at Iceland pix. That's the Baron's favorite wish list dream...to see Iceland. OT, but did you know the X chromosome material of the 'natives' is all Irish? That took many years of pillage and woman-stealing in order to settle Iceland.

Only a very brave (or foolish or desperate) Viking would steal an Irish woman. I wonder what all that extra Chinese testosterone will do to fix their problem of excess males?
Dymphna -- Thanks. No I had no idea that the Icelanders were descended from the Irish. Or is it the other way around? lol
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