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Pick your poison

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

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

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

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115. Patrap
12:07 PM CDT on May 04, 2007
Saharan Air Layer page....Link
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114. StoryOfTheCane
5:08 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
the Saharan Air Layer, it is one of the 3 major things that can prohibit hurricane formation along with Shear and SSTs

Here is a Wikipedia explanation of it...SAL

"The boundary between the SAL and the marine layer suppresses or "caps" any convection originating in the marine layer. Since it is dry air, the lapse rate within the SAL itself is steep, that is, the temperature falls rapidly with height.
Disturbances such as large thunderstorm complexes over North Africa periodically result in vast dust and sand storms, some of which extend as high as 20,000 feet. These can be driven out to sea within the SAL as far west as North America. In the case of Africa, winds blow twenty percent of dust from a Saharan storm out over the Atlantic Ocean, and twenty percent of that, or four percent of a single storm's dust, reaches all the way to the western Atlantic. The remainder settles out into the ocean or washes out of the air with rainfall. NASA scientists think that the July 2000 measurements made in Puerto Rico equaled about one-fifth of the total year's dust deposits. If these estimates hold true over the long term, then the entire state of Florida receives about three feet of dust every million years."
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112. StoryOfTheCane
5:03 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
i wouldnt trust a GFS forecast more than 3 days out, just too unreliable, especially when conditions are unfavorable
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111. StoryOfTheCane
5:02 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
this is probably something we should all not be too excited about seeing right now

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110. GainesvilleGator
4:42 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
I was on Weatherguy03s blog & he has a link to Aquak9's blog. A lot of people have attached photos, many from satellite on the fires in Georgia & Florida. You can clearly see where the fires are & were the smoke if going.
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109. 882MB
4:37 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
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108. StormJunkie
4:23 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
Good to see you GG. Hope y'all get some rain soon!

Good to see ya INYO.
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107. GainesvilleGator
4:13 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
For those of you living in Georgia & North Florida where there is smoke from the fire burning in south Georgia. Here is what Dr. Masters had to say about a question of mine:

Hi, smoke is bad to breathe--just as bad as smog. Both have high levels of poarticulate matter, the most dangerous type of pollution to breathe. I would check the AQI (Air Quality Index) for particulate matter before doing your walk, and consider shortening it if the AQI is over 100 (Unhealthy for sensitive groups).


*********** Original message follows: ***********
Sent by GainesvilleGator at: 7:47 AM EDT on May 04, 2007

I like your articles on pollution that you put out this week. I have been thinking a lot about the possible consequences of getting in my 4 mile walk (Gainesville, FL) while there is heavy smoke in the air from the fires burning in southern Georgia. Is there any difference between smoke from fires or smog in the big cities? What is your take on the health conseqences from all of this smoke that is in the Southeast from the Georgia fires?

Thank you Dr. Masters for the quick response to my question. I will probably stick with the indoor treadmill at my gym until the smoke clears. This smoke is affecting a very large area so people need to take necessary precautions.
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106. Inyo
3:34 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
I'm driving from Las Vegas to Grand Junction tomorrow... it looks like I will have a snowstorm to contend with. Not what I expected.

I've got a 4*4 truck with good tires, so I should be okay. The best part - Utah doesn't have dumb California drivers in the ice crashing into things.
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105. StormJunkie
2:39 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
How's it going SW?

I agree that with the exception of the Gulf Stream, the waters off the Carolinas are still a little cool. Although they are starting to warm fairly quickly now.
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103. StormJunkie
2:30 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
Drak, while I agree that the model consensus is generally the best thing to watch, certain models are better at certain times. Ex. During the '05 season the GFDL had a very good year. Specifically during Katrina, the consensus had her going up the E coast of Fla or the panhandle of Florida. The GFDL was the frist model to elude to the S jog while crossing Fla, and then later it was the first one on board with a further W landfall...

Good to see you thel, K8e and everyone else ☺
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102. franck
2:29 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
kinda big bolt...could have charged my truck battery with that.
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101. StormJunkie
2:27 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
Mel, you can find some of the most used model pages from here.

The FSU site and the Air Resources Laboratory site are both great for viewing the majority of the models.
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100. Patrap
9:25 AM CDT on May 04, 2007
Lightening strike at 28 seconds into this movie.....video from this morning.
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99. Drakoen
1:56 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
Models are just tools for forecasting. They mean nothing individually..its the consensus of the whole model package that one looks at to see the trends and future,POSSIBLE secnarios. No ONE model is better than another. Its the mean spread of consensus that is important. There is NO system developing. ..now. Or expected.

hmm well most of the models are indicating some development of a low. There is no system developing now but a few days out there could be.
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98. Patrap
8:55 AM CDT on May 04, 2007
The UNISYS GFSx (x for experimental)..shows the BLIP in the Carribean at the end of the period run. Its only 1 expression of it. Link
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97. Drakoen
1:53 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
model link http://moe.met.fsu.edu/tcgengifs/
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96. weathermanwannabe
9:50 AM EDT on May 04, 2007
Good morning all......I would love to see a "squeeze play" in the gulf and atlantic next week just park over Florida and soak us for a few days.....Mucho Needed.......It will be fun to watch but TS development is not likely
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95. Patrap
8:52 AM CDT on May 04, 2007
Models are just tools for forecasting. They mean nothing individually..its the consensus of the whole model package that one looks at to see the trends and future,POSSIBLE secnarios. No ONE model is better than another. Its the mean spread of consensus that is important. There is NO system developing. ..now. Or expected.
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94. Patrap
8:50 AM CDT on May 04, 2007
GOOGLE ,.. the model you want to get the links.
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93. melwerle
1:49 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
where does one find these links?
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92. Drakoen
1:48 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
It seems that most of the models are showing development in the same area,but they have different ideas on where the storm will go.
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91. Drakoen
1:36 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
what is the link to the Nogaps model?
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90. melwerle
1:19 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
Morning StormW! Could it bring us any RAIN? :)

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88. K8eCane
1:09 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
what could we be seeing thel?
arent you in MB?
I'm in wilmington
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87. thelmores
12:54 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
will be interesting to watch what happens off the SE coast early next week.....

when most of the major models show "something", more interesting than just one model.....

have a good weekend everybody! :)
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86. i12BNEi
12:59 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
Hello all
Looks as though the NOGAPS predicts the low to be off the SW coast of Fl. just at the same time as the GFS predicts the shear to drop off for the Eastern gulf all the way up to the panhandle.Interesting.Any thoughts?
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85. TheCaneWhisperer
8:44 AM EDT on May 04, 2007
Morning SJ!
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84. Patrap
7:21 AM CDT on May 04, 2007
Big Bad rumbling storms rolled thru NOLA last night and this morning. One big cell nearing me now from the west. Link
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83. StormJunkie
12:23 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
Morning TCW
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82. StormJunkie
12:17 PM GMT on May 04, 2007
Great link pat. Thanks!
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81. TheCaneWhisperer
8:12 AM EDT on May 04, 2007
NoGaps must think the High will remain strong and force the low to the west! GFS says it will head NE! CMC meanders it along the mid-atlantic coast. Yep, all over the place SJ! I like the Nogaps, we need the rains, have to see what materializes.
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80. Patrap
6:59 AM CDT on May 04, 2007

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79. Patrap
6:51 AM CDT on May 04, 2007
NHC model overview, If one is going to drive with the MODELS.One need the Keys...Link
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78. cajunkid
6:41 AM CDT on May 04, 2007
Morning SJ, Yea, the models seem to be stuck b/w the seasons. I would like to see one get a hold on things and stay constant. Exciting to see things heating up.
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77. StormJunkie
11:35 AM GMT on May 04, 2007
Morning cajun. You are right even if the shear lowers the SSTs are still a little cool. That said it will be intersting to see if this actually develops in to a surface low. Very little doubt in my mind that nothing much will come of it even if it does develop. It will also be interesting to see which one of the models had the best grip on it as they all have fairly different solutions.
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76. cajunkid
6:25 AM CDT on May 04, 2007
I've got one word for y'all "SHEAR". I don't think we need to worry just yet, but...who knows. This could be just what the Dr. ordered for south FL. I just hope it dosn't all come down at once. A week of slow and steady rain would be good.
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75. StormJunkie
11:16 AM GMT on May 04, 2007
Morning 882, good to see ya, but no need to scream. That is still 4 to 5 days away and the models are all over the place as to where it will end up. The Nogaps solution would provide some much needed rain for Fla though.
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74. 882MB
11:11 AM GMT on May 04, 2007
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73. 882MB
11:09 AM GMT on May 04, 2007
Hey everybody, Has anyone taken a look at the most RECENT GFS 06Z AND THE LATEST NOGAPS MODEL?
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72. StormJunkie
9:35 AM GMT on May 04, 2007
Morning y'all.

Most of the models are continuing to develop a fairly significant surface low off of the E coast in the three to five day time frame. The timing and positioning of this will be interesting to watch. Some of the models are putting it off of the OBX while others have it hanging around S Fla.

You can find some of the best forecast model pages from the StormJunkie.com Quick Links page. You can also find imagery and much more from there.

Off to work. See y'all later.
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71. Doove4cane
12:24 AM CST on May 04, 2007
It might be a derecho developing Inyo...not sure what it will produce yet though
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70. Inyo
6:18 AM GMT on May 04, 2007
hey, is that a 'derecho' (or was it derecha?) moving towards New Orleans? I am still new to that particular weather phenomenon but it looks similar to the one that went through Texas.

Caffinehog, I wouldn't get too excited about La Nina. The forecast is for it to strengthen, still, but I just don't see it happening, myself. In any event, El Nino is not likely to return any time soon, so the atlantic hurricane season could still be pretty nasty.
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69. Caffinehog
5:50 AM GMT on May 04, 2007
Anyone notice that the LaNina is a bit weaker than it was????
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68. Doove4cane
10:18 PM CST on May 03, 2007
I wonder if we are going to get some severe weather tonight in New Orleans? It looks like there is a chance according to what I'm seeing.
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2:59 AM GMT on May 04, 2007
ST SIMMONS THAT IS MY WEATHER GUY HE IS OUT OF Sarasota Florida news 6 what a flamer
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66. weatherboykris
2:58 AM GMT on May 04, 2007
ok,hope they helped.
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65. stormhank
2:57 AM GMT on May 04, 2007
gotta run bro. tc, n thanks if you find anymore good links mail them.
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Cat 6 lead authors: WU cofounder Dr. Jeff Masters (right), who flew w/NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990, & WU meteorologist Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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