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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2007

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A Future Short of Breath? Possible Effects of Climate Change on Smog

Smog arrives in U.S. northeastern and midwestern states with the summer’s merciless heat and still air, a brown haze that hangs in the sky until cool air rolls in and provides a welcome respite. In Los Angeles and Missoula, it thickens in mountain basins like soup in a pot. Houston’s smog worsens in September, when sea breezes off the Gulf of Mexico die down. For the rest of the world, although the composition and severity of smog can vary greatly from region to region, a pattern has emerged: Warm temperatures, pollutants, and sunlight often work together to produce unhealthy conditions, the dangers of which are just now becoming known. The United States and other countries have attempted to address the issue of air pollution. On “bad air days,” when particularly smoggy conditions are predicted, newscasters or authorities urge people to take public transportation and warn asthmatics and others with heart or lung conditions to stay indoors.

As more has become known about what meteorological conditions favor smog formation, predictions for the next day’s air quality have become increasingly accurate. But what about the long-term picture? In coming decades, climate change will likely have a large impact on temperatures at the Earth’s surface and on day-to-day weather patterns. Will higher temperatures at the surface favor smog formation? Or will these higher surface temperatures contribute to lofting of the smoggy air toward higher layers of the atmosphere? How will changes in cloud cover impact surface air quality? If a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor, will cloud cover increase, thereby slowing down the production of smog? Finally, how will developing countries adopt new technologies without further degrading their air quality in a changing world?

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