Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Climate Change Impacts Respect no Borders

Visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (L front) shakes hands with the Republic of Korea President Roh Moo-hyun during their meeting in Seoul, capital of the Republic of Korea, April 10, 2007. (Xinhua Photo/Rao Aimin)

This is the time of year when the winds from the Gobi desert in Mongolia and Northern China sweeps yellow sands across to the Korean Peninsula.

The annual April storms keep children indoors, ground aircraft and create problems for precision industries such as semiconductors.

The Financial Times reports today that after a mild winter that deposited little snow in the Mongolian deserts, experts, including the Korea Meteorological Administration, believe 2007 could be the worst on record.

In the 1980s South Korea suffered severe yellow dust storms on about four days a year but that increased to an average of eight days a year in the 1990s and has reached more than 12 days a year this decade, according to the environment ministry, reflecting global warming.

The sand from the Gobi desert is becoming ever drier. Diminishing snowfalls mean the sand is not bound together as closely as in previous years.

The sand, which carries high levels of iron and manganese, picks up dioxins and heavy metals such as copper, cadmium and lead as it travels across the polluted industrial areas of northern China.

The Korea Environment Institute estimates as many as 165 South Koreans, mainly elderly people and those with respiratory problems, die each year and almost 2m more suffer from eye and breathing problems as a result of the sand.

Last year 4,373 schools closed for at least one day, while 164 flights were cancelled and many more aircraft were forced to change flight paths.

The Samsung Economic Research Institute estimates the economic damage from yellow dust at $5.5bn annually.

The FT says that Hynix and Samsung Electronics, both big computer chip makers, have increased the time employees spend in "air showers" on the way into their high-technology plants. Carmakers are forced to change the air filters in their spray-painting factories more often.

Still, for some businesses the seasonal storms also represent an opportunity: LG and Samsung have both produced new air-purifiers with enhanced dust removal mechanisms.

Meanwhile, supermarkets report mask sales have doubled or tripled from last year and restaurants are even selling more samgyopsal, a fatty pork dish said to be good at cleaning out dust from the inside when consumed.

Government officials from China, Korea, and Japan, which suffers to a lesser degree, have been meeting to help Mongolia plant more trees to create a green belt across the Gobi desert, and are giving $1.2m to Korean environmental groups to promote forestation. But it will be a slow process.