In an earlier blog post, I wrote about how the poor air quality and visibility in Hong Kong marred the beautiful skyline and affected the quality of life for residents. Well, the air pollution got a lot worse, which I witnessed right before Typhoon Vicente and then again for Tropical Cyclones Damrey, Saola and Haikui. About a whole week passed with smog as the norm, as the typhoons churned out in the Pacific Ocean. While typhoons and poor air quality are not directly connected, the thick, heavy smog signals the approach of a tropical cyclone, as the air is trapped.
My first glimpse of how poor the visibility can get occurred right before Typhoon Vicente struck Hong Kong, one of the most intense typhoons in 13 years. I was amazed at how bad the visibility had degraded. On way to Victoria Harbor for a ferry trip, I spoke with the taxi driver about the poor visibility. He said this always happens before a typhoon (I didn’t even know one was approaching at the time!). I could barely see Victoria Peak from the Harbor. The smog created an eerie haze around Hong Kong.
A few days later, the severe Typhoon Vicente struck Hong Kong, even making international press as Hong Kong Observatory issued the typhoon signal 10 for the first time since 1999 and the farthest tropical cyclone since 1946.
Although the storm landed south of Macau (or 69 miles south of Hong Kong), the typhoon did disrupt Hong Kong with damaging winds and drenching rainstorms, but fortunately no one was killed. Typhoon Vicente even delayed the opening of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. After the storm passed, the air quality and visibility improved.
Interestingly, the summer in Hong Kong usually produces more brilliant “blue sky days than during other parts of the year,” due to winds blowing from the south. This weather pattern basically means that the air pollution is pushed out of the city, leaving the air seemingly cleaner than during other parts of the year. The absence of smog, however, does not equal clean air.
Meanwhile, another three tropical cyclones that passed north of Taiwan changed the weather patterns again. While Hong Kong did not feel the direct effects of the storm, the presence of the typhoon trapped the air pollution within Hong Kong. The smog had no where to go but sit in the downtown area rather than move out to sea. As a result, Hong Kong experienced the worst air pollution in two years, not since the dust storms struck the city in March 2010 and the worst since 1999, when the government began to monitor air quality. The air pollution indices topped 200, topping at 212 in Central.
The main causes of air pollution originate from regional sources in Guangdong Province (factories and coal-fired power plants in China) and local sources (coal-fired power plants and automobile exhausts, particularly from diesel engines). According to ECA International, Hong Kong has the third worst air pollution behind Beijing and New Delhi, and ranks world-wide with along with Santiago, Mexico City and Cairo for poor air quality. Additionally, Hong Kong has the second-worst road-side air pollution in China—only Urumqi in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region outranks Hong Kong. Despite Hong Kong being the third most livable city in Asia, international businesses and financial centers frequently cite the worsening air pollution as a block to not only recruiting talent, but also keeping current employees in Hong Kong. Singapore has become the more desired work location with its clean air and easy living conditions.
The poor visibility and air quality does lead to an increase in (non-accidental) deaths, according to researchers at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health. The concentration of PM 2.5 and 10, as well as NOx, combined with the humidity and heat (temperatures were 30º C), creates a hazardous combination.
The month of July experienced only 12 “clear days,” and so far 47 days out of 219 days have had pollution levels under WHO standards. As I am writing this post, the sky is somewhat blue, but the Hedley Environmental Index measures the air quality as “very dangerous,” meaning that the short-term measurements exceed the WHO annual interim target level 1 for roadside and roof-top pollutants (PM 2.5 and 10) and will have an impact on public health.
The Hong Kong Government knows this air quality is a problem, and has tightened air pollution standards. However, many of Hong Kong’s green groups believe these modest standards are not enough to improve the environment. Tellingly, the Hong Kong Government has not tightened their air quality standards in 25 years.
The impact of tropical cyclones on air quality demonstrates how Hong Kong relies on favorable weather to keep out the smog. Even when the storms passed, unfortunately the air pollution will not disappear without significant overhaul to local emission regulations for automobiles (i.e. old diesel buses) and fossil-fuel power plants. The clearly visible air pollution and its physical effects on residents at least raise the awareness that Hong Kong has to take action to improve air quality. Not only will Hong Kong experience a “brain drain,” but also the long-term health of its citizens will be significantly impacted. In this case, cleaning up the air pollution not only makes sense for environmental protection, but also for the financial and public health of Hong Kong, the Pearl of the Orient (東方之珠).