The Planet

Watch Chinese Air Pollution Work Its Way Around the World in This Scary NASA Animation 

by Rafi Schwartz

February 2, 2015
image via (cc) flickr user vtpoly

Baoding, a heavily industrialized city in China’s northeast, has been awarded the dubious honor of having that country’s most polluted air. It’s an impressive, if disheartening, achievement, considering that in 2014 90 percent of Chinese cities failed to meet national air quality standards—ones put in place to combat the growing pollution created during the past thirty years of Chinese industrial growth. But while Baoding’s dirty atmosphere represents a major environmental and health concern for that city’s 11 million residents, climatological research shows that industrial air pollution in China doesn’t stay in China for long. This newly released NASA animation demonstrates how fast and far air pollution, much of it from Asia, flows through the planet’s atmosphere in just a matter of months.

Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Chinese air pollution may also be responsible for stronger, more destructive weather patterns seen across the Pacific ocean. In an article released alongside their video, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher Yuan Wang explains that “pollution from China affects cloud development in the North Pacific and strengthens extratropical cyclones.” Those extratropical cyclones, in turn, are responsible for heavy snowfall and bitter cold in the United States. In other words: More pollutants in the atmosphere lead to heavier clouds, stronger storms, and worse weather such as, Wang speculates, the extremes felt during the winter of 2013.

If Baoding’s recent recognition is any indication, this is a trend that is likely to continue for the immediate future, and is already altering the way climatologists see the world. According to Wang’s co-researcher, Jonathan Jiang:

“Before, we thought about the North-South contrast: the Northern Hemisphere has more land, the Southern Hemisphere has more ocean. That difference is important to global atmospheric circulation. Now, in addition to that, there's a West-East contrast. Europe and North America are reducing emissions; Asia is increasing them. That change also affects the global circulation and perturbs the climate.”

It’s a stark reminder just how interconnected—and fragile—our planet truly is. 

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Watch Chinese Air Pollution Work Its Way Around the World in This Scary NASA Animation