Thursday, April 2, 2015

Cough Potato

Yesterday, a typical summer rain poured over Seoul, following a particularly dry winter. A welcome boost for the Spring colors that already popped up across the capital.

It also toned down less welcomed color bursts, like these recurrent pollution peaks:

Ways better than the recent Everest (over 1,000 ㎍/㎥) recorded on February 23. That day, I was not in Seoul (yay!), but in Shanghai (ugh)...

The March 29 peak shown above was 'solved' by drizzling episodes on April 1s, and for a few minutes the concentration of nanoparticles went as low as 6 per cubic meter:
'Best April Fools in a long time: Seoul pollution only 6 ㎍/㎥! (

Of course, rain only washes dust away and 'cleans' the air temporarily, it doesn't solve pollution. Typically, even after last night downpour, we were back to the 40-50s today. In Paris, 50 triggers an information flash, and 80 an alert.

Seoul posted a 5-year high of 71 ㎍/㎥ on average in March, a month where precipitations were five times weaker than normal, and sandstorms from China occurred three times more than usual ("Spring Haze Worse Than Ever" - Chosun Ilbo - 20150403):


According to Seoul Metropolitan Government, the nanoparticles come mainly from China and Mongolia (30-50%, followed by Gyeonggi and Incheon (25-30%), the capital itself (20-25%), and natural causes (4%):
Nanoparticle pollution rising in Seoul (
So here we are, cough potatoes stuck to our sofas while airpocalypse creeps around our home, a foreign disease born in Chinese factories / coal power plants, and borne by winds made even dryer by cashmere goats turning the vast plains of Mongolia into barren deserts.

A convenient untruth, I'm afraid.

Of course, Seoul receives a lot of its pollution from China, and the situation will get worse before it gets better on that front. The worst peaks in Beijing (often after firework frenzies) give birth to lower peaks in Seoul in the days that follow. But most of Seoul's pollution is generated in Korea, and some people are doing their best to not only hide that truth, but also to undermine the effort to curb local emissions.

If you read the fine prints (mercifully not as fine as the said particles), the media are talking about incremental pollution, not the basis: "analysis shows that China will be responsible for 36.8% and Gyeonggi Province for 16.3%. Seoul itself will only cause 16.2% of the increase in the density of fine particles in the city"*. 

Last month, Greenpeace exposed the imposture: "despite what is widely reported through the Korean media, from 50 to 70 percent of particle-laden smog, which is also known as PM2.5, is generated within the country"**. And just when Beijing closes its fourth coal power plant***, and just when Paris considers banning diesel cars, South Korea is pushing a very controversial agenda, embracing diesel and planning a dozen more coal power plants by 2021.****

Obviously, local polluting lobbies are doing their job well beyond the media and lawmakers. PARK Chan-goo, head of atmospheric measurement and management at the Seoul Institute of Health and the Environment, goes as far as to imply that Seoul doesn't need to do more to curb its own pollution: "Since China is exerting such a big influence, I think this may be the most Seoul can hope to achieve through its current efforts (...). In order to achieve more results, it would be much more effective to cut down on the sources of the particles in China, Mongolia, North Korea, Gyeonggi Province, and Incheon".

Hopefully, in the same article*, we hear sounder words from YOON Chang-jin, head of atmospheric improvement for the Seoul Metropolitan Government: "Seoul’s independent efforts to reduce fine particles are extremely important in the sense that they are keeping the particulate density from exceeding critical levels. Without these efforts, particle density would increase, which could have a deleterious effect on citizens‘ health".

Needless to say, the capital is also trying to collaborate with its Chinese counterparts, even if that's more on the monitoring than on the operational level (e.g. in February 2014, "Seoul works with Beijing to combat ultrafine dust"). Again, megacities have the power and the duty to push for positive changes that are sometimes more difficult to implement at the national level.
And in case you worried about North Korea, know that they are on the same page as the South these days, and building a coal power plant in Samdung-ri, Kangdong-do "Pyongyang’s Perpetual Power Problems" (Curtis Melvin - 38 North - 20141125)

See also "Air Pollution: New Measures, Please", all posts related to environment.

Seoul Village 2015
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* "More than a third of fine particle pollution comes from China" (The Hankyoreh - 20141106)
** "Greenpeace spares China from blame for fine dust" (The Korea Times - 20150304)
*** "Beijing to Shut All Major Coal Power Plants to Cut Pollution"(Bloomberg News - 20150324)
**** "Coal plants cause over 1,000 premature deaths each year: group" (Yonhap News - 20150304)
See also the recent White Paper: "Megacity Air Pollution Studies–Seoul - MAPS-Seoul" (NIER - National Institute of Environmental Research - 20150225):
"MAPS–Seoul’s objectives are as follows:
① Increase the performance of the air quality model prediction by reducing the bias in model simulation, and strengthen management decisions in policy development
- Improve emission inventories, particularly for anthropogenic NOx (NB: nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide), VOCs (NB: Volatile Organic Compound, mostly from solvents and automobiles), NH3 (NB: ammonia), CO (NB: carbon monoxide), SO2 (NB: sulfur dioxide), and biogenic VOCs (BVOCs)
② Assess long-range transports of pollutants from Asian megacities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and the SMA (NB: Seoul Metropolitan Area)
- Characterize the chemical evolutions of oxidants and aerosols in and out of the SMA, including O3 (NB: ozone), NOy (NB: reactive mixes like nitrous oxide), secondary organic aerosol (SOA), and their precursors to precisely constrain critical photochemical processes that should be considered in the air quality forecast modeling framework
③ Validate aerosol and selected gaseous products of GOCI (NB: Geostationary Ocean Color Imager) and other satellite sensors to integrate satellite observational products for reliable urban and regional air quality and emission inventory analysis
- Characterize the optical/physical/radiative properties of aerosols in the SMA and surroundings to resolve the effects of air quality on visibility reduction and urban weather forcing
This plan proposes a scientific research program integrating in-situ observations with one preliminary (in 2015) and two intensive (in the summer of 2016 and the winter of 2017) field campaigns in the SMA with the use of remote and satellite sensors, and modeling platforms. This will be partly conducted in collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other international scientific communities.

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