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Dust Storm Econ Impact China Korea Japan*

April 14, 2002

China's Growing Deserts Are Suffocating Korea


EOUL, South Korea, April 12 — School was called off throughout much of this sprawling city last Monday because of inclement weather.

It was not a freak spring snow storm, a heat wave or torrential rains.

Rather, it was an immense cloud of dust that blew in from China's fast-spreading deserts, about 750 miles away.

It hid Seoul from view throughout the morning, obscuring the sunrise just as surely as the heaviest of fogs. Clinics overflowed with patients complaining of breathing problems, drugstores experienced a run on cough medicines and face masks that supposedly filter the air, and parks and outdoor malls were nearly empty of pedestrians.

With the arrival of the huge dust storms for the third consecutive year, Koreans have begun to grimly resign themselves to the addition of an unwelcome fifth season — already dubbed the season of yellow dust — to the usual four seasons that any temperate country knows.

Like the harmattan in West Africa, when skies throughout that region turn a soupy gray for weeks at a time because of seasonal wind patterns that bring airborne dust southward from the Sahara, Korea's new season is a disturbing reminder for Asians of global interconnectedness and the perils of environmental degradation.

"There is no way for us to deter this," said Kim Seung Bae, deputy director of South Korea's national weather service. "All we can do is try to forecast the yellow dust storms as early as possible, but with the current technology we can only detect it one day ahead of time at best. For now, our main innovation will be to add predictions of the intensity of the dust to our weather reports."

In Seoul, a measurement of 70 micrograms of dust per cubic meter of air is considered normal during most of the year. At 1,000 micrograms, experts say, serious health warnings are indicated. Earlier this week, in the fourth storm of the season, a record measurement of 2,070 micrograms was reached in this city. Mr. Kim said two or three more storms could hit Korea this month.

Scientists say the dust storms, which are distinctly visible on regional satellite weather maps as gigantic yellow blobs, are the result of the rapid desertification in China and a prolonged drought affecting that country and other parts of Northeast Asia.

The term yellow dust refers to the color of the sand when it coats parked cars and windows rather than the color of the skies, which all this last week were a thick, acrid gray.

According to China's Environmental Protection Agency, the Gobi grew by 20,000 square miles from 1994 to 1999, and its steadily advancing edge now sits a mere 150 miles north of Beijing. As in West Africa, which weather experts say is the world's leading source of dust, China's environmental changes are accelerating because of overfarming, overgrazing and the widespread destruction of forests.

But unlike West Africa's dust, which is carried to the southern United States by winds known as the tropical easterlies, dust from the Gobi and Taklimakan deserts in rapidly industrializing China is binding with toxic industrial pollutants, including arsenic, cadmium and lead, increasing the health threat.

Changes like these have long made springtime synonymous with respiratory distress in Beijing.

But as the dust storms have grown, their impact has been spreading rapidly eastward, blighting the air over the Korean peninsula and beyond.

This has been an unusually dusty spring in Tokyo, for example, and fingerlike plumes of the airborne sand now travel 7,000 miles aboard the jet stream reaching Portland, Ore., and San Francisco, where the main effect so far has been to create breathtaking sunsets.

"There is no smoking gun yet that proves that man is causing this," said Charles S. Zender, a professor of earth system science at the University of California at Irvine, "but rather lots of anecdotal evidence."

"The puzzle of Asian dust is a huge question in weather science right now," he said, "and if human activity is proven to be the cause, it stands to reason that this problem is going to keep getting worse."

As a mood of resignation has set in over the persistence of this phenomenon, Koreans have already begun to focus on the economic costs. What was only recently regarded here as a minor nuisance is now seen as posing a serious threat in areas as diverse as public health, travel, retail shopping and even high-tech manufacturing.

This last week, for example, in addition to the school closures, scores of domestic flights have been canceled because of poor visibility. Workplace absenteeism has risen, too, and retail sales have dipped, as a result of people staying indoors.

"I've had a little bit of a cough," said Choi Byoung Su, 30, a businessman who was at a downtown pharmacy stocking up on medicine for a sore throat, which he said was caused by the dust storms. "I'm not too concerned about my health for now, but it is really a hassle for my car," he said, explaining that he needed to have it washed at least once a day now.

Even South Korea's major industries are suddenly complaining about the worsening effects of the storms. Semiconductor manufacturers, for example, which are highly sensitive to contaminants, have reportedly had to change their sophisticated air filters much more frequently and require workers to take longer showers before beginning assembly work. Workers are also being discouraged from entering and exiting the factories any more than is strictly necessary.

Hyundai Motor, meanwhile, a major automobile manufacturer, has reportedly begun to wax its cars differently and shrink wrap them in plastic sheeting before export to protect them from the dust.

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