Haze Over Cities Is a Problem Bigger Than China: Today's Pic

Photographer: SeaWiFS Project/NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/ORBIMAGE

A pool of air pollution has spread out over eastern China past the Korean Peninsula and northeastward toward Japan on Oct. 22, 2004. Close

A pool of air pollution has spread out over eastern China past the Korean Peninsula and... Read More

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Photographer: SeaWiFS Project/NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/ORBIMAGE

A pool of air pollution has spread out over eastern China past the Korean Peninsula and northeastward toward Japan on Oct. 22, 2004.

China's big industrial cities are learning the hard way that rapid economic growth comes at a price frequently paid by the lungs.

Residents of Bejing and Shanghai live under continuous threat that air pollution will make walking around the block harder than climbing a mountain. This side effect of economic progress turns out to be somewhat contagious, as local pollution goes global, according to a recent study in Nature Communications by scientists from Texas A&M University, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Peking University.

The trouble is a group of chemicals called aerosols, which are emitted during coal-burning and can cause environmental headaches like acid rain. Today, the cloud of pollutants above Asia is so great that, not only can it be seen from space (above), but it appears to intensify western Pacific cyclones, according to the study. That's in addition to the chemicals' known "impacts on air chemistry, visibility, human health and weather," the authors write.

The study looks at winter storms above the northwest Pacific, "directly downstream from the Asian pollution outflow," they write. The pollution can reach six miles high in the atmosphere, and affect cloud formation, rainfall and storm intensity. It might also influence weather in North America, the researchers suggest.

Aerosols have an important role in the Earth's atmospheric thermostat as well. Unlike heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane, aerosol pollution reflects sunlight, resulting in a cooling effect.

"There is high confidence that aerosols and their interactions with clouds have offset a substantial portion" of global warming, the IPCC wrote in its voluminous 2014 climate science report.

That's great; now we just need something to offset the more intense cyclones.

Previously, in Today's Pic:

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