China’s Smog Might Be to Blame for the East Coast’s Rough Winter

A NASA visualization shows how particles from East Asia can swirl into Pacific storms—a source of precipitation for the U.S.

Shanghai smog
Smog over Shanghai Matt Mawson/Corbis

The effects of China’s smog and pollution are varied and far-reaching: Beijing can’t be seen from space, one man has apparently sold fresh air from a can, schools were closed in the northeastern city of Harbin in 2013, and some villages are possibly so polluted that they have become cancer hot spots

Now, researchers suspect that even the unusually chilly and snowy winter that the Eastern U.S. has endured may be traceable to the smog from China’s cities. "Over the past 30 years or so, man-made emission centers have shifted from traditional industrialized countries to fast, developing countries in Asia," physicist Jonathan Jiang told Michaeleen Doucleff, reporting for NPR’s "Goats and Soda" blog. And an animation from NASA shows how sources of pollution arise from some areas and mix throughout the world. Airborne particles in the simulation show sea salt from the ocean (blue), dust from deserts (red-orange), soot from fires (green-yellow) sulfur from fossil fuel emissions and volcanoes (ash-brown to white), Doucleff reports.

GEOS5 aerosols

The simulation covers the time period from May 2005 to May 2007. NASA’s statement explains:

[F]ires burning over South America and Africa can be seen emitting large amounts of black carbon into the atmosphere. At the same time, dust from the Sahara and the Middle East is picked up by winds and transported west, where it becomes wrapped up in two tropical cyclones over the Atlantic in early to mid September. Sulfur emissions from Europe, Asia, and North America are also pulled into the flow and advanced eastward and poleward, and are occasionally pulled into cyclones. Mount Nyiragongo, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, continuously erupts throughout the animations. The Tibetan Plateau is apparent as an obstacle to the westerly winds that have swept across the Gobi desert in Asia and picked up dust.

The patterns show that China and Southeast Asia’s pollution can blow east and mix with storms born in the Pacific. Jiang tells NPR that extra pollution in those clouds can make them swell with precipitation. Since those storms can drench the West Coast, or as they have this year, end up far north in Canada and have lasting effects on U.S. weather, it isn’t a far reach to think that pollution in China could effect U.S. winters. 

Doucleff reports:

Jiang isn't sure yet how much the bigger storms in the Pacific are to blame for cold, wet winters on the East Coast and drought in the West. His research team is working on models and computer simulations right now to look at such questions. "We have not reached a final conclusion yet," he writes.

Even though criticizing developing countries can seem unfair, these quickly growing and industrializing nations’ choices will have a big effect on the people there and abroad. China has already made promises to curb emissions, though achieving their goals may be tough. As it is becoming clear, solutions are already needed.

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