▲ Through China, Korea, and Japan, Yellow dust flows to Pacific Ocean. Providedby visibleearth.nasa.gov.
“Your daughter’s generation will be the last survivor on earth.” In the movie Interstellar (2014), the reason why characters were trying to escape from Mother Earth is due to a sand storm which devastated the planet. People suffered from severe respiratory diseases because of the dirt encompassing the world. Because of desertification and soil fertility which caused the dust storm, human beings are confronted with the ends of their species. The calamity is not true in the movie only. The miniature version of the disaster is occurring in Northeast Asia every spring.
Yellow dust which is also known as Asian dust, is the phenomenon that refers to the sand movement riding the flow of the air coming from the northwest. It affects extensive parts of Northeast Asia such as China, Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. Professor Lee Mee Hye (Earth and Environmental Sciences) pointed out that there are two main factors why Asian dust happens: sandy surfaces, and the seasonal winds.
The dust originates from northern China and Mongolia which have vast deserts areas like Neimenggu, Gobi, and Tibet Plat Desert. Since the altitude of the regions is higher than that in the circle of influence, it is easier for dust to reach wide boundaries. When all the ice melts and the land loses the power to hold the sand in the desert, particularly in the spring, yellow dust happens. In spring, especially, the flow of air above Northeast Asia facilitates the phenomenon. Combining with seasonal westerly winds, and low pressure in the spring makes the powerful yellow dust.
The size of the particles varies from one to dozens of micrometers. Lee said, “In fact, the sand itself contains just a few poisonous chemical components but the problem is its considerable quantity. If large amounts of particles are inhaled, it can be lethal. Moreover, when combined with exhaust gas which is emitted from industrial zones and contains toxic chemicals, yellow dust is more threatening.”
Many factories are concentrated on the east coast of China that emit tons of chemical fumes every day. Yellow dust sweeps these fumes directly into Beijing, Pyeongyang, and Seoul. China recorded one percentmortality rate in six metropolitan cities because of the respiratory ailment caused by particular matter (P.M.).
Due to the desertification, according to the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), Neimenggu in China has lost one-third of its lakes since 1987. People in the region are usually nomads who earn a living by feeding their sheep or horses. The livestock eat all the pasture foliage and people use more water in their factories to develop coal, which intensifies the desertification. This leads to a downward spiral.
What is worse is that deserts spread southward which was once believed to be a safety zone from desertification. Since yellow dust usually forms in arid regions, and deserts continuously downwards, this compounds the problem. To alleviate and reduce the severity of yellow dust, it is critical to stop desertification.
The government of Mongolia and China now acknowledge the problem. Mongolia knows it needs to take measures, but it is hesitant to deal with it, due to the lack of budget. On the other hand, China, in spite of having enough money and power to relieve the disaster, is lukewarm about the problems. Professor Lee said, “The authority is more interested in economic growth than environmental problem. Even though they have started to make plans to alleviate the situation by planting trees recently, this could not be the fundamental solution.”
▲ The Ministers of Environment from three nations consented on the problem in 2014 conference. Provided by korea.net.
Since yellow dust is a transboundary problem, it has to be dealt with in cooperation of the nations that are under the influence. The Tripartite Environment Ministers Meeting (TEMM) is one of the examples which is organized to look for solutions for the yellow dust. The conference consists of three nations of Northeast Asia, which are Korea, Japan, and China. It covers all environmental issues of the nations, and nowadays especially regarding yellow dust which is the common concern of the three nations. Recently, the three parties agreed on exchanging relevant data of dust and sand storm in the 2014 meeting that took place in Daegu, Korea.
Despite their settlements about Asian dust for several years, mitigating the phenomenon seems dark so far. The conference has consented to react to the situation jointly, which is just following countermeasures not directly on solving the problem. Furthermore, there are lack of projects that treat it in a global environmental context. “Since all ecological matters are somehow linked together, yellow dust also cannot be solved by focusing just on the problem only. It must be approached with other issues like global warming or acid rain in a global perspective,” asserted Professor Lee.
As yellow dust is just a periodical issue which does not occur all the time, it is likely to be forgotten easily. Compared to other disasters, people tend to belittle the situation because it passes after few weeks. The fact is, however, it severely threatens not only economies but also human welfare. The Chinese government and its adjoining countries have to make fundamental reforms in treatment of the atmospheric problems in a larger context. Without noticing the gravity of the problem and dealing with it properly, the countries of Northeast Asia are destined to face another version of Interstellar (2014).