Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sandy Sunday

Guest posting from The Bat

Since I’m very careful with my health ( and that of my husband ), he has asked me to write a blog on a topic that is consuming all my energy currently : DUST.

For those of you outside Korea I’ll summarise : Every spring Korea experiences a phenomenon called “yellow dust” or “yellow sand” lasting anything up to 8 weeks. It hails from the deserts of China and as it travels across that country it picks up a cocktail of harmful pollutants, toxins, carcinogens. The dust carries effortlessly across the Yellow Sea and some falls to earth over the Korean Peninsula, the rest continues to Japan and even the USA. This is our first dust season in Korea. I’ve been dreading it since I first heard of it, and yet it seems to have crept up on us, and I’ve now joined the other confused foreigners here wondering if it’s fog or dust and if I’m going to die.

Here’s my story :

It all started last night when my keen senses told me all was not well; I’d noticed that Seoul was looking yellow the last few days, and this wasn’t just my jaundiced view. I’d taken my usual morning walk across Yeouido Park and the atmosphere was oppressive, I felt the sun weak behind a coat of cloud and dust and I felt I ought to be on the other side, the sunny side. Friday afternoon I walked with Jon to Seoul Tower, again the atmosphere was heavy and I thought about those “futuristic” films set in foggy twilight.

Soylent Green was such a film. Soylent portrays a dark world where humans are too many and resources too few. Looking down over Seoul from this elevated position I couldn’t help but wonder if the future was indeed now, as the advertising slogan goes. The surreal qualities of the scene were enhanced by the sight of two female pheasants ( Phasianus colchicus ) close to the hiking trail. We are keen birders yet these are the first pheasants we’ve seen in all of Korea, right here, in the heart of Seoul. Anyway...

By Saturday evening I felt the need to apply science to my recent observations; I needed to quantify and qualify this curious gift from the people of China. I laboured over a hot search engine for hours finding precious little in the way of metrics, until Zen Kimchi pointed the way. And so I found my way to the US military who ( bless them ) provide exactly the kind of data I was looking for here.

I couldn’t sleep for a long time, I could feel something at the back of my throat . Was it purely psychological or was the dust getting in ?

On waking I went straight to the home of the 18th Medical Command and was delighted ( Am I crazy ?) to see that the particulate count had been building overnight, peaking at 1233 micrograms / m3 at 12:00 hrs today at Yongsan Army Base. Since the little blue graphs peak at 1000 micrograms ( you wild optimists, you ), we were clearly off the scale. What to do ?

I phoned the mobile number given on the Medcom Information Card. YES, they confirmed we were off the graph. Since >1000 means “Hazardous” what does 2000 mean ? I asked myself. Medcom seemed to be suggesting that above 1000 it doesn’t matter. Is that like saying 15 inches from the point of impact of a Weapon of Mass Destruction is the same as 10 inches ?

Medcom’s data is available for different bases and CPs around S Korea; at several CPs the day’s peak was above 2000. In practical terms this meant that things looked very very hazy and dull.

Here's the view from our apartment at midday today. This is the National Assembly Building.

This graph shows the average from all observations made in S Korea - peaking at 2019 at 1600 hrs today.

In the midst of all this excitement I could make out through my binoculars the forms of tennis players beside the Han River ! Well, if you’d paid in advance and there was a no-refund policy, what would you do ? But then how did that explain the jogger ? Had he just bought his shoes ? Maybe a gift from his mum ? She’d be cross if he didn’t use them.

Today, 1st April 2007, and no April Fool, was only the fourth time that the “high level” yellow dust warning has been issued in Seoul. The first was in March 2002 and the last was April 2006. This according to Yonhap News. This is clearly wasted on the die-hard sport fanatics out there.

I tried to corellate my realtime observations ( from my window ) with the Medcom graphs and the “Asian dust” satellite images from the Korean Meteorological Administration ( KMA ). This was not helpful. What I supposed was “Asian dust” on the satellite pics seemed to have blown across the peninsula by the time the graphs were peaking. Any meteorologists out there who would be kind enough to explain ?

Some recent stories on air pollution in S Korea.
Korea Times :
Worst Yellow Dust Blankets Peninsula
Environment Diplomacy
Air Pollution Reaches Serious Levels
The Hankyoreh
The Joongang Daily

The China Meteorological Agency (CMA) stress the natural and seasonal nature of yellow dust. Though readers should bear in mind its unnatural toxin-laden qualities.

The dust is held responsible for around 200 deaths annually in Korea, yet the toll on health generally and the psychological effect of living behind a yellow filter should not be under-estimated. The consequences for industry and agriculture are very significant and possibly easier to quantify than is the human cost. I find the experience of dust less irritating (from the safety of a sealed apartment) than depressing. It’s depressing because nobody here can avoid it, because this year's peaks are greater than last years, and because it’s symptomatic of a planet that is being pushed and pushed. Sandy Sunday's here to stay.


daeguowl said...

I'm reading this at work, and your photos are being blocked due to being "of an adult nature" :0 what am I missing out on?

Gary said...

This was an excellent "guest post"...I have linked to it. Very informative and well written. Thanks!