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Real-Time Map Reveals China's Deadly Air Pollution

Climate

Using Google maps and new data on China's air pollution, Berkeley researchers created a real-time map of the country's appalling air quality. The map is based on findings that the scientists published last month in the journal PLoS One. Using hourly air pollution data from more than 1,500 sites, researchers concluded that air pollution is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.6 million people in China every year, or about 4,400 people a day. That's roughly 17 percent of all deaths, or put another way, nearly 1 in 5 deaths can be attributed to the country's toxic air pollution.

A near real-time map developed by Berkeley researchers exposes how widespread China's air pollution problem is.

"Earlier studies put China's annual air pollution death toll at one to two million, but this is the first to use newly released Chinese air monitoring figures," says South China Morning PostThe authors of the study are members of Berkeley Earth, an independent nonprofit devoted to "expanding scientific investigations, educating and communicating about climate change, and evaluating mitigation efforts in developing and developed economies."

Though pollution in China's northeast corridor running from Beijing to Shanghai is "particularly intense," the problem is widespread. "Consistent with prior findings, the greatest pollution occurs in the east, but significant levels are widespread across northern and central China and are not limited to major cities or geologic basins," said researchers. They found that during a four month period from April to August 2014, 92 percent of the population experienced more than 120 hours of "unhealthy air" based on the standards of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And 38 percent experienced long-term average concentrations that were unhealthy.

“[The] map provides near real-time information on particulate matter air pollution less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5),” researchers said. PM2.5 is microscopic particulate matter that is small enough to "lodge deep inside a person's lungs and cause health problems in the long term," says South China Morning Post. “Under typical conditions, PM2.5 is the most damaging form of air pollution likely to be present, contributing to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, respiratory infections and other diseases,” say the researchers.

Today, the map shows the areas around Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nantong, Nanjing, Yichang, Luzhou, Qíngdao and Laiwu as having "unhealthy" air quality. Large portions of the map fall under the category of "unhealthy for sensitive groups" and the vast majority of the mapped area falls under the "moderate" health category. Only a very few small areas fall under the category of "good." The most unsafe air quality index (180.9) can be found near the city of Yichang, a major economic hub for the region. Its PM2.5 air pollution concentration is 113.4.

To put China's air pollution problem in perspective, look at Madera, California. The American Lung Association lists Madera's air pollution as the worst in the country. And yet, "99.9 percent of the eastern half of China has a higher annual average for small particle haze than Madera," said the study's lead author, Dr Robert Rohde. "In other words, nearly everyone in China experiences air that is worse for particulates than the worst air in the U.S."

Earlier this year, a documentary exposing China's abysmal air quality went viral within days of its release. The film was hailed by some government officials, but was ultimately banned by the state.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.