On differing air pollution perspectives – it’s all in how we see things

Brief intro: Anytime a newspaper article (report or opinion piece) appears dealing with the subject of air pollution in terms of it helping to bring about greater awareness to the people reading, I applaud such effort.

Read all about it!

One article, “Health of Stanislaus County residents is more important than Trump’s ego,” an opinion piece composed by The Editorial Board of The Modesto Bee and featured in the newspaper’s Sept. 20, 2019 edition, is not short on substance. Lots of good information here.

It has in it the usual; that is, reference to the much-improved air quality in the San Joaquin Valley, thanks mainly to government-imposed rules and regulations.

But, in the editorial there is one area that I take issue with.

What The Bee Board wrote: “The Valley’s bowl shape is largely to blame, capturing Bay Area smog blown in on delta breezes and holding it captive.”

The word “largely” as used above is a relative term – it’s vague. I am of the opinion it would have been so much more helpful from the readers’ perspective if the editorial had in it actual quantifying numbers in this particular instance for clarification purposes and to put things in perspective.

So what do I mean by this? The part about the Valley holding delta-breeze, blown-in, Bay Area smog is true. But the fact of the matter is the bulk of polluted air plaguing the northern Valley is not Bay Area derived. What is sourced from the Bay Area in the northern Valley is at most 27 percent with the remainder created regionally and locally, as well as that which settles into the region from pass-through truck, train, motor vehicle and ship traffic which amounts to 73 percent. That’s 73 percent local/regional area-created air pollution versus the 27 percent blown in – the difference in the two amounts is significant and hence the reason behind my bringing this up.

Okay, next subject. It has to do with air pollution and topography.

Textbook example

I don’t know who reading this remembers the guitarist/singer/songwriter Donovan. In one of his compositions are the lyrics “First there is a mountain then there is no mountain then there is” and so on a so forth. Could this have been in reference to mountains unobscured by smog, then obscured by and then unobscured by, I wonder? Yes, I’ll admit, this goes back a ways.

So on or related to that, there are places that have bordering mountains that are relatively air pollution-free. San Luis Obispo, located on California’s central coast, is one of these. And, there are locations that don’t have surrounding mountains that have air pollution.

Now as it pertains to the Valley and the point The Modesto Bee Editorial Board alluded to about the air pollution-corralling mountains off to the Valley’s east and west, well, what if in the Valley toxic air wasn’t an issue? Then whether there are mountains or not would not have any influence on Valley air pollution whatsoever.

Take Los Angeles: It’s perhaps the definitive case study as it has to do with smog.

Prior to the 1940s, nobody paid Los Angeles smog much mind if there was any smog there to speak of then to pay attention to.

Many Angelenos around that time used public transportation and depended on far dirtier automobiles much, much less. There was far less suburban sprawl in the southland too and air was no doubt cleaner.

Enter the 1940s and it’s an entirely different story. That’s when the auto really began making its impact felt and area electric interurban and streetcar railway systems, which began shutting down years earlier, by the late 1930s, had all but disappeared and that created the perfect storm for what has become the infamous L.A. smog. Add to this horizontal development and such only served to exacerbate the air condition.

Had the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains not existed and been a contributing factor, would smog in the region have happened anyway? The answer is: probably.

Air pollution, weather or not

Too often I read about weather or hear the weather mentioned and how in one sense stagnant weather contributes to or aids in Valley ozone and/or fine particulate matter formation. Or the opposite being the case – an unstable air mass like when the atmospheric pressure drops (low pressure), which can contribute to air cleansing.

My sense is, if people get too used to hearing or reading those kinds of explanations, they may just come away thinking that all that is needed to rid the air of toxic air contaminants is development of an area low-pressure cell (an unsettled air mass or stirring of the air, in other words, through rain, wind or both), and presto chango, instantly good air quality is present. Such thinking is counterproductive and the relief is only temporary. It is not the end all, be all or the cure, in other words, which, in this example, is actual mitigation.

Weather-radar-displayed thunderstorm band

Image above: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

– Alan Kandel