Pick your poison

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 7:41 PM GMT on May 03, 2007

Share this Blog
1
+

A huge, destructive hurricane takes aim at a major U.S. city. The media creates a riveting drama, followed by millions of people, who watch in awe as the massive storm smashes ashore. Grimly, wind-blown reporters and concerned news anchors document the mounting death toll and billions in damage wrought, bemoaning nature's deadliest and most destructive weather phenomena--the hurricane.

We've got it all wrong. The hurricane is not nature's deadliest and most destructive weather phenomena. Yes, hurricanes have taken a terrible toll in the U.S. over the past 20 years. They've killed an average of 150 people and caused $15 billion in damage per year--mostly thanks to Katrina. But the nation's deadliest weather events are not destructive storms that shred cities. Nature's most innocent weather--high pressure systems that bring sunny skies and light winds--are our deadliest weather events, thanks to the witch's brew of pollution we pour into our atmosphere.



Figure 1. Pick your poison--a Category 5 hurricane, or a sunny high pressure system with light winds? If you're an asthmatic, or have heart or lung disease, you'd probably be better off picking the Cat 5 hurricane. Photo of Los Angeles smog courtesy of wunderphotographer boytonbeachboy.

How high pressure systems trap pollution
High pressure systems are regions where the air gradually sinks, warming as it approaches the surface. This warming, sinking air creates a layer of air aloft (typically near 3000 feet in altitude) that is warmer than the air beneath it. This "upper air inversion" acts as a lid on the atmosphere, keeping pollutants trapped near the surface. Updrafts carrying surface air into the inversion suddenly encounter air that is warmer and less dense, so the updraft dies and the pollutants that they were trying to carry aloft settle back down towards the surface. If the high pressure region is large, an extensive area of light winds at the surface will exist, keeping the pollutants trapped under the inversion from being blown away horizontally. If the high pressure system stays in place for several days, pollutants will accumulate day by day, reaching levels harmful to human health and triggering a sharp rise in the death rate. "Particulate matter," also known as particle pollution or PM, is the pollutant that causes the largest rise in the death rate. Particulate matter pollution can occur any time of year, when winds are light and an inversion exists. In summertime, a double-whammy dose of ozone pollution can also hit, if temperatures are warm enough to drive the chemical reactions that form ozone.

How many people does pollution kill?
Why is it that air pollution episodes that kill thousands of Americans don't receive the media attention that hurricanes get? It's because it is not obvious when someone dies from air pollution, and there is very large uncertainty in the numbers. The only way to see air pollution deaths is to analyze death rate statistics for multiple years, carefully filtering out other influences such as weather extremes. Over two thousand studies have been published in the scientific literature documenting the link between air pollution and higher death and hospitalization rates. Most of these studies concern fine particulate matter (less than 2.5 microns in diameter), which can get deep into a person's lungs and be passed into the blood stream. Recent studies have also documented higher death rates from ozone pollution. For example, in a 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Michelle Bell, an air quality and health expert at Yale University, found that an ozone increase of 10 parts per billion increased the death rate by an average of .52% in 95 U.S. cities (containing 40% of the U.S. population) during the period 1987-2000. Bell's research implies that a change in the ozone standard from the current 80 ppb (parts per billion) to the newly proposed standard of 60 ppb could prevent nearly 8,000 premature deaths per year in those 95 cities. About half of the people who died prematurely in Bell's study were over age 75, but the death rate increased the same amount for both young and old. In some cases, the people who died were victims of strokes or heart attacks that had other contributing causes, such as high blood pressure or sedentary lifestyles. Thus, the "premature deaths" caused by air pollution are only partly attributable to breathing bad air, while drowning in a hurricane's storm surge is entirely due to the hurricane. Nevertheless, a great many children die of pollution-induced asthma attacks who would not have died otherwise, and the mortality due to air pollution in the general population is in the thousands or ten of thousands each year. Outdoor air pollution in the U.S. due to particulate pollution alone was estimated by the EPA in 1997 to cause at least 20,000 premature deaths each year. A 2005 study by EPA scientists (Particulate Matter Health Risk Assessment for Selected Urban Areas) estimated that over 4,700 premature deaths occur each year in just nine cities (Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Boston, Phoenix, Seattle, and San Jose)--even if those cities all met the current federal standards for particulate matter pollution. Extrapolating these data to the entire nation puts the annual death toll in the tens of thousands--but the EPA has not calculated that total. Some studies have placed the annual pollution death toll in the U.S. at 50,000 to 100,000 (Dockery, D.W., and C.A Pope III. Acute Respiratory Effects of Particulate Air Pollution. Annual Review Public Health, 1994, vol. 15,107-32.) The death toll is much higher in other parts of the world, where air pollution standards are not as stringent (see the photos below of pollution in Cairo and Hong Hong!) Globally, about 800,000 people per year die prematurely due to outdoor air pollution, according to a 2005 study published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. This represents about 1.2 percent of total annual global deaths.



Figure 2. Trends in fine particulate air pollution in the U.S. Since 1999, fine particles (less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) have decreased 15%. Image credit: U.S. EPA.

Progress is being made
Significant progress has been made in recent years in cleaning the nation's air. Between 1970 and 2004, total emissions of the six major air pollutants regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dropped by 54 percent. This is particularly impressive when noting that the gross domestic product increased 187 percent, energy consumption increased 47 percent, and U.S. population grew by 40 percent during the same time. Fine particulate matter pollution, which causes the most deaths due to pollution, has dropped 15% since 1999 (Figure 2), although it did increase in some Eastern U.S. cities in 2006. In March 2005, the EPA instituted the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR). This new rule will cost $3 billion per year to implement, but the EPA estimates annual savings of nearly $100 billion in health costs, plus the prevention of over 17,000 premature deaths, by the year 2015.

How you can avoid a premature death due to air pollution
- Pay attention to forecasts for high air pollution days to know when to take precautions
- Avoid exercising near high-traffic areas
- Avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high, or substitute an activity that requires less exertion
- Eliminate indoor smoking
- Reduce the use of fireplaces and wood burning stoves

How you can help others avoid a premature death due to air pollution
- Support national, state and local efforts to clean up sources of pollution. When one hears talk about the high cost of cutting fossil fuels use to reduce global warming, keep in mind that any lessening of fossil fuel use will also reduce air pollution and all of its costs.
- Conserve electricity and set your air conditioner at a higher temperature.
- Choose a cleaner commute--share a ride to work or use public transportation. Combine errands and reduce trips.
- Bicycle or walk to errands when possible.
- Refuel cars and trucks after dusk.
- Limit engine idling.
- Get regular engine tune ups and car maintenance checks (especially for the spark plugs).
- Avoid spilling gas and don't "top off" the tank. Replace gas tank cap tightly.
- Properly dispose of household paints, solvents and pesticides. Store these materials in airtight containers.
- Paint with a brush, not a sprayer.
- Buy low VOC paints for indoor and outdoor painting jobs.
- Reduce or eliminate fireplace and wood stove use.
- Avoid using gas-powered lawn and garden equipment.
- Avoid burning leaves, trash and other materials.
- Use household, workshop, and garden chemicals in ways that keep evaporation to a minimum, or try to delay using them when poor air quality is forecast.
- Replace your car's air filter and oil regularly

For more information
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated this week as Air Pollution Awareness Week. Check out their Air Pollution Awareness Week web site to learn more.

My next blog will be Monday.
Jeff Masters

Hong Kong in mist (RobertsChina)
Hong Kong skyline through mist and pollution, as seen from "The Peak" park. South-East China.
Hong Kong in mist
Egyptian Smog (Nefertiti)
This is a picture of the Pyramids at Giza taken from Cairo Tower at sunset. It highlights the pollution problem in Cairo.
Egyptian Smog

Reader Comments

Comments will take a few seconds to appear.

Post Your Comments

Please sign in to post comments.

or Join

Not only will you be able to leave comments on this blog, but you'll also have the ability to upload and share your photos in our Wunder Photos section.

Display: 0, 50, 100, 200 Sort: Newest First - Order Posted

Viewing: 165 - 115

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9Blog Index

165. NRAamy
10:57 AM PDT on May 04, 2007
Pat,

"If the trailor is a rockin' don't bother knockin'...

If the trailor is a rockin' don't bother knockin'...

If the trailor is a rockin', don't bother...

Come on in!!!!"

:)
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
164. StormJunkie
5:54 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
Stay safe pat! You got insurance on the FEMA trailer?
Member Since: August 17, 2005 Posts: 26 Comments: 15663
163. melwerle
5:52 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
Hey Skypony - what the heck is THAT
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 12 Comments: 1837
160. Patrap
12:50 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Its just a rocking the trailer here. WOWSA!
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592
159. Patrap
12:49 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
DocNDswamp has the explanation for the divergence aloft here today.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592
158. Doove4cane
11:49 AM CST on May 04, 2007
Wait...the wind it is picking up...about 25 mph gusts though
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
157. Patrap
12:48 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Posted By: DocNDswamp at 11:51 AM CDT on May 04, 2007.
Excellent explanation of what's happening across S LA / MS depicted on the 12Z GFS by examining the initiation period (not the loop)... Click on the 850, 700RH, and 500 but most particularly - the 300 and 200 mb charts... Look at the divergence aloft over this region, with the flow split... as it pulls apart with N sector flowing towards the NE, S sector flowing to the SE... allowing convective regeneration beneath.. the 12Z GFSLink
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592
156. hurricane23
1:49 PM EDT on May 04, 2007
On the lastest CPC update it seems to develope a moderate nina with SST'S cooling of by august across the atlantic basin.Lets hope that takes place.

6-Month Update....


Member Since: May 14, 2006 Posts: 8 Comments: 13629
155. Skyepony (Mod)
5:40 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
All those in SE GA & NEFL, the 12Z cmc has got your fire releif. Scroll right, click forward.

Story~ The ITCZ needs to get up atleast as high as 10N before we even bother looking out far into the Atlantic. Right now any TD or STD would come from a cut off low or like a peice of trough that inverts & develops.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
154. StormJunkie
5:44 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
Afternoon all.

I agree TCW. Looks like the models all tend to lean towards a cut-off low now. Have to watch them over the next couple of days and see if that sticks or not. For a while they were all calling for the high to break down and allow it to slip through.

Member Since: August 17, 2005 Posts: 26 Comments: 15663
153. Doove4cane
11:44 AM CST on May 04, 2007
It is just drizzling here to the east in Metairie...very dark outside though
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
152. cajunkid
12:43 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Patrap, I guess I should wait a while before I go down there. Man...this looks like some rain totals could be over 12". It almost has tropical characteristics right over Slidell.
Member Since: July 10, 2005 Posts: 3 Comments: 1279
151. crackerlogic
5:44 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
not sure about Va. , but on the west side of florida, we can't wait for hurricane season
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
150. Patrap
12:43 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Cell right on top of us here...Link
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592
149. NRAamy
10:42 AM PDT on May 04, 2007
Cracker...

People surf off of VA? I didn't know that....

:)

Amy
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
148. Patrap
12:42 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Cam...Link
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592
147. Patrap
12:40 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
gust over 50 here now...rocking and rolling..O man.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592
146. crackerlogic
5:29 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
my surfinig report show a low and some really big waves off of Va. on tue of next week
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
145. code1
12:33 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Thank you Dr. M for this blog. As one of many here who work in health care, we see the effects of COPD, (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) all too often. It does NOT always involve smoking as your wife has told you undoubtedly. Might be time for her to add her expertise to this oh so important blog for the masses. Thanks again! Always an educational experience here, and much appreciated.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
143. hurricane23
13:35 EDT le 04 mai 2007
Here are a few pics from the NAM...

RRRR


gggg
Member Since: May 14, 2006 Posts: 8 Comments: 13629
142. Patrap
12:34 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Getting rates here my locale of 2.1 per hour.Bad..
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592
140. Patrap
12:31 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Embedded tornadoes in the rouges too...Link
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592
139. StoryOfTheCane
5:30 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
the ITCZ has jumped up quite significantly over the past couple weeks, when it is prime will it be directly in line with the Pacific ITCZ or will it remain a little further south?

138. Patrap
12:29 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
FLOOD WATCH TILL 6pm..radar liting up like Xmas tree. Link
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592
136. StoryOfTheCane
5:26 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
1004mb will definitely bring some decent precipitation your way.
135. hurricane23
13:23 EDT le 04 mai 2007
Right only the CMC has it as a warm core system but it looks more like a warm-core seculision then tropical development.Right SST'S dont favor development in this area so i would not expect anything that significant then maybe a rain maker for florida.Lets hope.
Member Since: May 14, 2006 Posts: 8 Comments: 13629
134. StoryOfTheCane
5:24 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
thanks for the link. That is pretty strange if you ask me..
133. TheCaneWhisperer
1:23 PM EDT on May 04, 2007
12Z NAM! No it originates off the Mid Atlantic Coast!
131. StoryOfTheCane
5:21 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
oh its going to originate in the Gulf then?
130. hurricane23
13:19 EDT le 04 mai 2007
Looks like it is bringing the low from our back door cold front southeastward and develope it off the east coast.
Member Since: May 14, 2006 Posts: 8 Comments: 13629
129. TheCaneWhisperer
1:21 PM EDT on May 04, 2007
Looks to be a cut-off low!
128. TheCaneWhisperer
1:20 PM EDT on May 04, 2007
Front moving through the Midwest right now Story!
127. StoryOfTheCane
5:19 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
where do the models have it originating at? Is that the wave we saw coming off the coast of Africa a couple days ago?
126. TheCaneWhisperer
1:17 PM EDT on May 04, 2007
Working hard 23! Yeah! I liked that one also, pick up some good rains!
125. Patrap
12:19 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Too much rain here..Im sending it east later today.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592
124. hurricane23
13:17 EDT le 04 mai 2007
I know story but its something to keep an eye on as more models have now jumped on board with the GFS.Rain is welcomed so lets see what happens.
Member Since: May 14, 2006 Posts: 8 Comments: 13629
123. hurricane23
13:16 EDT le 04 mai 2007
Posted By: TheCaneWhisperer at 13:15 EDT le 04 mai 2007.

Afternoon 23! I figured you would like that one!

Whats up?

Actually i do cause we need the rain.
Member Since: May 14, 2006 Posts: 8 Comments: 13629
122. BoyntonBeach
5:16 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
882MB Can you link me to this -->> The new NAM 12UTC shows the LOW MOVING SW TOWARDS FLORIDA!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
121. StoryOfTheCane
5:14 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
23, SSTs AND Shear are unfavorable in that area, that is highly unlikely for anything tropical. Rainfall will be abundant though, no doubt about that.
120. Patrap
12:14 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Statement as of 12:08 PM CDT on May 04, 2007

... Flash Flood Watch in effect until 6 PM CDT this evening...

The National Weather Service in New Orleans has issued a

* Flash Flood Watch for a portion of southeast Louisiana...
including the following areas... Ascension... East Baton Rouge...
East Feliciana... Iberville... Livingston... Orleans... Pointe
Coupee... St. Charles... St. Helena... St. James... St. John The
Baptist... St. Tammany... Tangipahoa... upper Jefferson... upper
Plaquemines... upper St. Bernard... Washington... West Baton
Rouge and West Feliciana.

* Until 6 PM CDT this evening

* training of thunderstorms along a boundary across east-central
Louisiana from the Baton Rouge area through the North Shore of
Lake Pontchartrain will continue the threat of flash flooding in
the area. This boundary may drift southward and bring the threat
of locally heavy rainfall to the New Orleans Metro area this
afternoon
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592
119. TheCaneWhisperer
1:14 PM EDT on May 04, 2007
Afternoon 23! I figured you would like that one!
118. Patrap
12:13 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Boomers here..Large Damaging Thunderstorm heading east. Metro area to get some soon...Link
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592
117. hurricane23
13:12 EDT le 04 mai 2007
ggg
Member Since: May 14, 2006 Posts: 8 Comments: 13629
116. hurricane23
13:06 EDT le 04 mai 2007
Good afternoon guys....

Interesting solution with the Nogaps.
Member Since: May 14, 2006 Posts: 8 Comments: 13629
115. Patrap
12:07 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Saharan Air Layer page....Link
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127592

Viewing: 165 - 115

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9Blog Index

Top of Page

About

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

Local Weather

Light Rain
62 °F
Light Rain