November 12, 2008

Professor Charts Air Quality Before And After Beijing Olympic Games

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The Lost Dog Café’s upstairs lounge played host to the Ithaca Science Cabaret speaker series last night as Ithaca residents and science enthusiasts alike crowded into the dimly lit lounge. They reclined on the couches and perched themselves on the chairs while sipping wine and listening to this month’s speaker. Prof. Max Zhang, mechanical and aerospace Engineering at Cornell, explored the scientific basis for concern about air quality in Beijing during this past summer’s Olympic Games.
According to Kitty Gifford, one of the coordinators for the Ithaca Science Cabaret, the series began its fourth year this September and has always taken place at the Lost Dog Café in the Commons.
“Lost Dog has been a great host to the series,” Gifford said. “It’s a great venue.”
The Cabaret brings one speaker a month to the Lost Dog in an attempt to take science out of the lecture halls and the labs and present relevant, scientific topics to interested people who may not be experts, according to Gifford. The speakers are often professors from Cornell and Ithaca College, but have also included graduate students, researches, writers and poets. She explained how the series is often a collaboration of science and art.
While all the speakers’ topics have a foundation in some sort of science, they vary drastically, ranging in topics from the likelihood of the existence of extraterrestrials to the science of communism.
Zhang’s discussion, entitled “2008 Olympics: Beijing Air Quality Demystified,” examined one of the biggest issues leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics: air quality in Beijing. According to The New York Times, many American competitors, elected to forgo the outdoor opening ceremonies because they felt the extended exposure to Beijing’s smog-filled air would be detrimental to their performances. According to Zhang, the Chinese government and Beijing officials took measures to try and curb the amount of pollution in Beijing before the Olympics. They imposed traffic regulations in order to try and limit emissions from vehicles, especially trucks that were even banned from driving in the streets of Beijing during the Olympics. They created new subway lines and tried to encourage people to take public transportation by heavily subsidizing it and charging passengers about 25 cents in American currency to travel. All construction was postponed until after the Olympics to limit pollution.
“Many good things happened for the Olympics,” Zhang said, referring to the measures taken to limit pollution.
To gauge the effect of these regulations in Beijing, Zhang measured the air pollution in August 2007 and then again in August 2008. He discovered that the median levels of overall pollution in the air in Beijing did not change very much despite the stringent precepts that were instituted.
“If you only control the air pollution in Beijing you still wouldn’t solve the problem,” Zhang said.
In explaining why the pollution levels remained relatively unchanged despite attempts to limit pollution, Zhang explained that the air of Beijing is not isolated from the surrounding cities. Even though Beijing adopted pollution-reduction measures, the surrounding areas still produced high levels of pollution. Zhang explained how pollution particles, especially lightweight ones, remain in the air for extended periods of time. Wind direction can also cause pollution to travel to neighboring cities. Beijing’s air pollution remained high even though it curbed its personal pollution creation because neighboring cities continued to contaminate its air.
“It’s [pollution is] a regional phenomenon,” Zhang said.
Examining specific pollution levels displayed the effectiveness of Beijing’s pollution-reduction measures. Zhang cited that the concentration of the pollutant black carbon in the air decreased significantly from 2007 to 2008.
The air on the night of the Olympics’ opening ceremonies was “thick and smoggy” according to The New York Times. The air in Beijing became infamous for its impenetrability and gray color. Zhang confirmed that low visibility in the air is in fact correlated with strong levels of pollution.
“When you have poor visibility you have high air pollution,” Zhang said.
In addition to highlighting the efforts that were undergone to limit pollution before the Olympics, Zhang expressed his belief that many of these measures would dissipate after the Olympics. While the subways would remain, he did not believe that the same restrictions on traffic and trucks would be maintained. He did not believe that the construction hiatus would last. And he did not believe the devotion to curbing pollution would endure once Beijing’s air standards were out of the international spotlight.
Maysoon Sharif ’11 had a twofold reason for attending Zhang’s speech. As an environmental engineering major, she had a vested interest in his topic. In addition, Sharif is part of the Orientation Steering Committee and is trying to organize a similar event to the Scientific Cabaret for January orientation.
“I enjoyed it,” Sharif said about Zhang’s presentation. While believing he might have focused a little too much on the scientific details, Sharif maintained, “He did a good job explaining things.”
For the version of Scientific Cabaret she wants to bring to Cornell, she wants to make sure that the topic is interesting and relevant and not so scientific as to be intimidating.