Special Reports
Donner Summit Air Station Detects Chinese Pollution

By David Bunker
Sierra Sun
July 31, 2006

The sun rises over Beijing engulfed in a thick layer of smog. Reserearchers say
pollution in China is affecting the air quality in California.

Ryan Salm PhotographyThe air monitoring station perched atop Donner Summit is an
unlikely place to detect a fragment of sand from the Gobi desert or residue from
a Chinese power plant, but that’s exactly what University of California, Davis
researchers think they’ve found.

As one of three California air quality outposts the university is using to
investigate long-range movement of pollution, the Donner Summit station is on
the leading edge of detecting what researchers say are millions of tons of
previously unknown contaminants from coal-fired power plants, smelters, dust
storms and diesel trucks in China and other Asian countries.

“We are absolutely not isolated from China, even though we have 5,000 or 6,000
miles of ocean between us,” said Steven Cliff, a research engineer at UC Davis.

The pollutants are not currently a severe problem, but experts fear that as
China increases its industrial and economic endeavors the air pollution will
only increase. The sharp growth in trans-Pacific pollution could affect human
health, worsen air quality and alter climate patterns, scientists say.

“We’re going to see increased particulate pollution from the expansion of China
for the foreseeable future,” Cliff said.

His monitoring stations on Donner Summit, Mt. Tamalpais and Mt. Lassen see
little pollution from local sources, and the composition of the dust particles
matches that of the Gobi Desert and other Asian sites, Cliff said.

About one-third of the Asian pollution is dust, which is increasing due to
drought and deforestation, Cliff said. The remainder is composed of sulfur, soot
and trace metals from the burning of coal, diesel and other fossil fuels.

On Donner Summit, night-time “downwelling,” where cooling air drops from the
upper atmosphere, reveals pollutants carried from thousands of miles away, Cliff

“It pushes out all of the local or regional air and gives you air from the upper
atmosphere, which holds the long-range transports,” he said.

Cliff is studying whether transported particulate matter could affect climate by
trapping heat, reflecting light or changing rainfall patterns.

Pollutants ‘not local’

Tom Cahill, the UC. Davis researcher who is analyzing the pollutants captured on
Donner Summit since March, says the particles are not from the area.

Cahill will analyze weather patterns that correspond with the day the particles
were detected and try to pinpoint the source of the pollutants, whether it be
Arizona or the Gobi Desert.

“Most of the time, most of the stuff is not local,” he said.

But most air pollution in other U.S. cities is generated locally, which could
change if citizens in China, India and other developing nations adopt
American-style consumption patterns, researchers say.

“If they started driving cars and using electricity at the rate in the developed
world, the amount of pollution they generate will increase many, many times,”
said Tony Van Curen, a UC Davis researcher who works with Cliff.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that on certain days nearly
25 percent of the particulate matter in the skies above Los Angeles can be
traced to China. Some experts predict China could one day account for a third of
all California’s air pollution.

Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington, said he has
detected ozone, carbon monoxide, mercury and particulate matter from Asia at
monitoring sites on Mount Bachelor in Oregon and Cheeka Peak in Washington

“There is some amount of the pollution in the air we breathe coming from halfway
around the world,” Jaffe said. “There ultimately is no ‘away.’ There is no place
where you can put away your pollution anymore.”

China’s own environmental problems are severe and getting worse. Nearly 30 years
of relentless industrial expansion has fouled the country’s rivers, lakes,
forests, farmland and skies.

The World Bank estimates that 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in
China, and air pollution is blamed for about 400,000 premature deaths there each

Coal-fired power plants supply two-thirds of China’s energy and are its biggest
source of air pollution. Already the world’s largest producer and consumer of
coal, China on average builds a new, coal-fired power plant every week.

Meanwhile, car ownership is soaring as the country’s economy grows about 10
percent a year, contributing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked to
global warming.

‘Environmental time bomb’

If current trends continue, China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest
emitter of greenhouse gases in the next decade, said Barbara Finamore, who heads
the Natural Resources Defense Council’s China Clean Energy program, which is
helping the country boost its energy efficiency.

“China’s staggering economic growth is an environmental time bomb that, unless
defused, threatens to convulse the entire planet regardless of progress in all
other nations,” Finamore said.

Even Chinese environmental officials warn that pollution levels could quadruple
over the next 15 years if the country doesn’t curb energy use and emissions.
Beijing plans to spend $162 billion on environmental cleanup over the next five
years, but the scale of the country’s pollution problems is immense.

“When you look at China’s population growth and industrial growth, it’s hard to
imagine how air quality could improve in the near future,” said Ruby Leung, a
researcher at the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in
Richland, Wash., which collaborates with Chinese government scientists on
atmospheric research.

Earlier this year, Leung and her colleagues published a study that found
particulate pollution has darkened China’s skies over the past 50 years by
absorbing and deflecting the sun’s rays.

China’s pollution also regularly dirties the air in neighboring South Korea and
Japan, but until recently researchers didn’t think it had much effect on North

U.S. scientists have recently found that Asian pollution is consistently
transported across the Pacific on air currents. It can take anywhere from five
days to two weeks for particles to cross the ocean.

Some scientists predict that global warming could change those circulation
patterns, either speeding or slowing the transport of pollutants from Asia.

China’s environmental challenges are daunting, but the country is taking action
to reduce its energy use and air pollution, said NRDC’s Finamore. Beijing has
set ambitious goals for increasing energy efficiency, fuel economy standards and
use of renewable power sources such as wind and solar, she said.

“There are tremendous opportunities for China to slow the amount of pollution it
pumps in the air,” Finamore said.


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