Warehouse C
The Smog We Breathe
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Foul Brown Haze Over The World


By James Donahue


A few years ago while living among the American Indian tribes in the arid desert region of northeast Arizona my wife and I became enamored by the night sky. Each night the stars became a blanket of twinkling lights that turned the sky into an exciting tapestry of movement and wonder.


It had been years since I saw a night sky like that in my native Michigan. Seeing the stars like that brought back memories from my childhood when I used to stare in awe at the stars and dream of other worlds and suns. I became a science-fiction buff. The vastness of space was amazing to me.


The build-up of smog and haze came upon us so slowly that we didn’t notice that the grandeur of the night sky was disappearing from view. It wasn’t long before we forgot that it even existed.


The memories came back in a rush once we arrived in Arizona, where the air was still clean and pure. We were awarded then with the passing of two comets (the famous Hale-Bopp was one of them), an amazing alignment of the planets that could be easily seen from our rustic desert home, and a full eclipse of the moon.


My mother was dying in the nearby City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, so we traveled there. I recall the horror of following the highway as it descended down the side of a mountain into the sprawling city below. We could see the smog below us and little else. As we dropped into it, the brown haze and its stench surrounded our vehicle in layers, and soon entered through the cars ventilation system. We found ourselves wishing we did not have to go any farther, knowing we were taking that putrid contaminated air into our lungs with every breath.


After we were there a while, just as had happened in Michigan we stopped noticing the smog. People have a way of adjusting to their environment, although we were quite aware all during our visit that the air was foul.


We had the same experience every time we descended the mountains and entered the City of Phoenix. That air was so bad that the city issued regular warnings to keep people, especially children, asthmatics and elderly citizens indoors when the pollution got above a certain level. It stunk all of the time in Phoenix. Our hair, clothes and bodies took on the odor of the city.


While in Arizona I took a newspaper job in Show Low, in the White Mountains at the edge of the Apache Reservation. The air was good there. But during the three years we lived there, and in nearby Springerville, it began to change. At sunset we noticed that the brown haze was starting to creep in around us. The stars began to dim. The smog was on the move.


Now it is everywhere. It comes from millions of automobiles, factories and furnaces all burning fossil fuels and spewing carbon particles into the atmosphere. It comes from chemical plants that spew an untold quantity of other elements from their stacks into the air every day.


A recent report said a thick blanket of this haze now circles the entire northern hemisphere of the Earth. It is so thick it almost reaches the top of the Himalaya Mountains and is thick enough that it blocks up to fifteen percent of the sunlight.


Scientists warn that the haze is affecting the world’s weather patterns, people’s general health and may soon be affecting our food supply. Because it blocks sunlight it is causing less evaporation of water from lakes and oceans, thus reducing global rainfall. This, in turn, is creating more desert regions throughout the world.


Veerabhadran Ramanathan, an atmospheric science at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, lead a research team that studied this cloud of haze in 1999, not long after we first noticed it encircling us in the desert area of the Southwest.


The team concluded that the cloud could travel from the eastern United States to Europe within four or five days and into South Asia within a week. Smog from China can reach the United States at about the same speed. "This is a fast transport which converts a local problem into a regional and global problem," Ramanathan said.


The effect of this haze is confusing scientific predictions about the future. Some scientists studying global warming saw a greenhouse effect that they believed would create a warmer but wetter world. Yet Ramanathan said he believes this shroud of pollution will work just the other way, drying the planet, especially in the tropics.


He said research by his team in an agricultural plain across north India near the Himalayas found that from ten to seventeen percent of sunlight is not reaching the ground. The study looked at a blanket of chemicals and dust from cars, aerosols and agricultural and industrial waste across South Asia. They found that the vast cloud of pollution is disrupting weather systems, reducing rainfall and affecting wind patterns. It is producing droughts in the western parts of the Asian continent.


The same thing is happening in the Southwestern United States where the monsoons no longer produce the water so badly needed by ranchers and the cities. Instead, dust storms are on the increase as more and more prairie is turning to desert.


Winter dust storms in the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado have become more and more frequent. This is having an affect on the rate of melting snows that feed the Colorado River. The river is a main source of water for agriculture and for drinking water for more than 20 million people


The concern is that the problem will intensify over the next thirty years as the population of the world continues to grow and natural resources like clean air, water, food and lumber no longer keep up with demand.