We’ve long known that air pollution is a major problem in China, but now that all eyes are on Beijing, due to the Olympics, the problem is becoming embarrassingly obvious.

Chinese officials have compelled reductions in industrial activity by as much as 30% and cuts in automobile use by half to safeguard the health of competing athletes immediately before and during the games, but they may not have much luck if the weather doesn’t cooperate, since pollution levels in Beijing depend on whether prevailing winds are blowing in from the heavily industrialized provinces to the south or from the less populated north.

Meanwhile, the Olympics are giving climate scientists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe how the atmosphere responds when a heavily populated region substantially curbs everyday industrial emissions.

The Cheju ABC Plume-Monsoon Experiment (CAPMEX) will include a series of flights by specially equipped drone aircraft containing instruments that can measure smog and its effects on meteorological conditions. These data-gathering flights will originate at the South Korean island of Cheju, located about 725 miles southeast of Beijing and in the projected path of pollution plumes originating in various cities in China including the capital. That information will be combined with concurrent measurements being made by satellites and observatories on the ground that will track the transport of dust, soot and other pollution aerosols that travel from Beijing and other parts of China in atmospheric brown clouds.

In previous studies, meteorological data gathered by these aircraft helped demonstrate that atmospheric brown clouds can diminish the solar radiation that reaches Earth?s surface, warm the atmosphere at low altitudes and disrupt cloud formation.

CAPMEX researcher V. Ramanathan says, “Thanks to the concern of Olympic organizers, the Chinese government and the cooperation of the Korean government, we have a huge and unprecedented opportunity to observe a large reduction in everyday emissions from a region that is very industrially active.

“Black carbon in soot is a major contributor to global warming. By determining the effects of soot reductions during the Olympics on atmospheric heating, we can gain much needed insights into the magnitude of future global warming.”

Climate researcher Soon-Chang Yoon says, “CAPMEX is going to be the very first UAV campaign in east Asia for air pollution and cloud interaction studies. This will be a very interesting experiment that can never happen again.”

In LiveScience.com, Andrea Thompson quotes weather expert Kenneth Rahn as saying, “This is the big story of Beijing’s air pollution that is not widely recognized, is that it’s always going up and down in regular cycles [according to how the wind blows].” Let’s hope the cycle is a good one for those poor athletes!

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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