The Rock Doc: Air pollution shows how small our Earth is
We’ve all seen globes in classrooms. They represent the Earth well – better than flat maps do. But all the globes I’ve seen in schools have national boundaries on them, usually indicated by having nations in different colors. The U.S. is yellow, Canada is light green, Mexico is pink, and so on. When I was a child my big brother owned a globe like that, and I got to pore over it sometimes.
My sister-in-law has a different globe, one specially purchased for her by her father. It has no national boundaries – so all of North America is presented as a unit, as indeed are each of the land masses. I think her globe may have been inspired by the view of Earth from the moon, an image beamed back to us by astronauts.
Recently I thought of that globe when I read the news about a study concerning how air pollution in China affects us here in North America.
“Pollution from China is having an effect in the U.S.,” said Don Wuebbles, a faculty member in atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His remarks were reported by CNN.
Wuebbles co-authored a piece recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. At first, I was taken by surprise by the research findings. My thinking was that the Pacific Ocean is vast and would protect us from Chinese air pollution. But apparently winds carry particulates and ozone over the ocean, and some of it reaches our shores. It takes just days for the pollution to travel long distances, crossing both the Earth’s largest ocean and national boundaries as it does so.
It’s not that China can be criticized for air pollution while we congratulate ourselves for being “green.” One of the reasons China is the world’s leading emitter of man-made air pollution is that China is producing so much of the world’s manufactured goods. A lot of those goods come to us. In other words, we have outsourced our manufacturing to China, and that means we’ve outsourced the associated air pollution.
Wuebbles and his colleagues argue that air pollution in China that’s related to exports contributes meaningful amounts of sulfate pollution in the Western United States. Ditto for ozone. Those results are nothing to sneeze at.
One way of putting the facts in simple terms is to note that it’s a small world. We don’t see China’s smokestacks from our shores, but they impact the air those of us in the Western U.S. breathe. We Americans are connected to our Chinese brothers and sisters, just as they are to us for a market for their many goods.
The bottom line for me is that my sister-in-law’s globe has the best representation of the Earth I’ve ever seen. There are no national boundaries when it comes to either Earth processes or man-made pollution. And what happens in one place can affect conditions on the ground thousands of miles away.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard universities. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.