Chinese Exports Spread Pollution to U.S. West Coast

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The Internet buzzed last week, as only the Internet can, over an image that purported to show that — such is the extent of pollution in China — Beijing’s ”natural light-starved masses have begun flocking to huge digital commercial television screens across the city to observe virtual sunrises.”

As it turned out, the story wasn’t true: The digital sunrises are part of an advertising campaign for China’s Shandong Province. The breathless reporting of fake news prompted one observer to note that, “Westerners are so convinced China is a dystopian hellscape they’ll share anything that confirms it.” Western audiences, wrote Gwynn Guilford, “generally love ‘airpocalypse’ stories.”

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But of course, just because some of the more fanciful stories are the product of wishful thinking and exaggeration, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t some legitimate issues concerning increased air pollution as China’s industrialization continues apace.

A new study in the journal Nature Communications, for example, has found that this increased pollution — not just from China, but also from other countries in the region — has intensified winter cyclones in the northwest Pacific.

The study, led by Yuan Wang of Texas A&M University, found that air-borne particulates, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, accelerate the formation of cloud droplets because they provide a platform on which water vapor condenses. Wang and colleagues concluded that clouds affected by aerosols carry up to four times as many droplets as those unaffected, leading to a roughly seven 7 increase in rainfall across the region.

The aerosols are also likelier to encourage the formation of brighter, high-altitude cirrus clouds over the ocean, which help to warm the sea surface and thus provide heat to fuel cyclones. The additional warming effect can be as much as 11 percent.

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The Nature Communications study only looked at atmospheric changes in the Pacific Northwest. But, as Joseph Stromberg notes in an article for the Smithsonian, another new study — published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – has found that particulate pollution from China also crosses the Pacific to the extent that, for example, it can at times account for between 12 and 24 percent of the sulfate-based pollution over the western United States on a given day.

So at least some of the concerns about Chinese air pollution are well founded, after all. But before we get too smug about Chinese smog, consider this: The PNAS paper found that an estimated 36 percent of manmade sulfur dioxide, 27 percent of nitrogen oxide, 22 percent of carbon monoxide and 17 percent of black carbon over China are the result of manufacturing goods for export — principally to the United States.

Shaking our heads at Beijing’s air quality is all very well, in other words. But if we’re looking for someone to blame, we could begin by looking in a collective mirror.

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