From Haze to Climate Change: A talk with a CMU Scientist
As the rains come, it is tempting for us all to allow it to wash away the suffocating stress of the recent haze season, instead enjoying the fresh breeze and clean air…knowing full well that the cycle will begin again. It’s inevitable. The situation has been so appalling and obvious this year that many of us who care about our health, Chiang Mai and all of its people have started to take matters into our own hands to do whatever we can to help out fellow residents, from distributing N95 masks to pressuring authorities to push forward national policies. Chiang Mai University too, has taken part in academic research to provide necessary information that will help influence crucial decision making. Citylife sat down with Asst. Prof. Dr. Somporn Chatara, Head of Environmental Science Research Centre (ESRC), Faculty of Science, Chiang Mai University, to learn all about their projects which include working with a team of NASA scientists and Taiwanese academics on matters of air pollution.
Q: Please tell us about this research.
A: Titled Air Quality and Haze Evaluation in the Northern Region of Thailand to Assess Health and Environmental Impact, this research continues from our previous project which studied biomass burning. The study aimed to identify the particulate matter that is released, comparing them from two different sources — forests and agricultural plantations. Particulates from plantations were chosen from rice fields and corn crops. The key finding was that emissions from agricultural burning had more Potassium Ion and Chloride than biomass burning in forests, all of which comes from the fertilisers and pesticides used in farming. Whereas emission from forests tend to contain more levels of levoglucosan from cellulose fibers (which is found in bark or wood).
That project is complete. Currently, we are studying emissions in the city. It’s a two year project funded by Thailand Research Fund. As we aim to compare city and rural areas, we choose to collect samples from the Northern Meteorological Centre which is located near the Chiang Mai International Airport, and Boonyawat Wittayalai School, Lampang. The reason for this is both of the areas have quite heavy traffic all day every day. For rural areas, samples are collected from the city of Chiang Dao and Mae Sariang. As we all know, Chiang Dao faces quite horrible pollution and is located in the northern part of Chiang Mai city while Mae Sariang sits to the southwest. We will also collect samples from two periods each year, February to April which is during the smog season, and November to December, out of smog season, to compare.
Q: Can this help trace sources of smog?
A: Yes, it will help identify the key factors that influence the haze we face, and of course will lead to its source. To trace its air path as to where the haze has blown from, however, we have another model we are using. This model will analyse data collected from the air samples and validate it with the hotspot data in the area presumably to be the source from the haze. With this, we are able identify the contribution of emissions in a certain area. This model is also able to reliably forecast smog levels for up to five days.
Q: What is the model?
A: It’s called GEOS-5, and is a collaboration between teams of scientists from NASA and Taiwan. The model is installed in Fang District. As we are researching the same topic, they have given us access to the information from the model while we provide them with data we have such as hotspots data. This exchange has led us to set up the Smoke Haze Integrated Research Unit.
Q: Why would NASA be interested in us?
A: It’s not just Chiang Mai or Thailand particularly, but the whole region that is the source of haze, and we are all a part of it. So it’s as if we are a host and they came with tools and experts. This is part of NASA’s Seven SouthEastAsian Studies (7-SEAS) Mission.
(Note: 7-SEAS objective is to “develop a true picture of aerosol-cloud interaction” which includes studying biomass burning emissions.)
What they are interested in is aerosol in the atmosphere. This is not just a concern about pollution and its bad effects on our health. The particulate matter can be blown far away and remains in the atmosphere for quite some time and has an effect on rain clouds, which ultimately contributes to climate change. It’s a massive topic. And there’s a lot of scientific proof required.
Taiwan, too, is concerned because they are downwind. In the long run, pollution is not just about health concerns but it also impacts so many dimensions for every single person.
Q: Has the government been interested in the works?
A: Our research team is joined by academics from Regional Environment Office 1 and 2 which are responsible for most parts of the north, and they are hoping to apply the findings to government policy. We have also been contacted quite often by Chiang Mai’s local government for data such as hotspots and the forecast for urgent counter measurements. However, that only started around mid-March, which is a little too late, in my opinion, but at least there are requests for information.
Q: What’s next?
A: We will be focusing on completing this research by the end of the year while also continuing to work on the 7-SEAS Mission to identify the impact of the pollution in all dimensions. So, it’s long term work. We are not paid to work on this mission but we are driven by our curiosity as scientists to use the tools we already have. Honestly, to find funding on this kind of massive scale of study is also difficult as it does not resonate directly with a particular region or city.
As the monitor for GEOS-5 model is already uninstalled and returned to NASA, we will apply for collaboration from NASA again next year. It’d be nice if the government would invest in the monitor considering the situation. Currently, we kind of borrow it from time to time.
Q: Is there any collaboration with our neighbouring countries who are in the same situation?
A: I’d love to have such collaboration. It’s obvious that we, too, contribute to the pollution. However, such collaboration needs to come from the top. There has been whisperings in many conferences that this issue should be prioritised but there has been no action on it.
If you want to find out more about the research, please visit www.shiru-cmu.org