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Understanding the science behind Singapore’s haze

11 Oct 2015

Right now, harmful smog is cloaking parts of Kalimantan and Sumatra in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, irritating lungs, burning eyes, and closing schools. Haze from Indonesian fires has become a chronic problem for Singapore, one that we now expect almost every year. Despite the enormous consequences of the haze on our health and climate, it’s not well studied. There hasn’t been continuous monitoring of the haze in Singapore or at its source in Indonesia.

Mikinori Kuwata and his team from the Earth Observatory of Singapore are filling that gap in knowledge. Kuwata is studying the chemicals in haze, both in the laboratory and in Singapore. He also has plans in motion to monitor the air in Sumatra. With the combination of experimental and observational data, Kuwata’s work will provide a baseline in understanding how the haze affects the local environment and neighbouring countries.

Assistant Professor Kuwata burns Indonesian peat in his state-of-the-art lab to analyse its atmospheric chemistry and how it interacts with water. In the field, he monitors concentrations of aerosols and carbon dioxide to understand how haze develops from peat fires and how it contributes to climate change and air pollution.

Kuwata's instruments are working to measure aerosol particles in haze at the top of a building on the NTU campus. (Image credit: Mikinori Kuwata)

His group currently focuses on measuring haze in Singapore, and is planning to compare the data with laboratory experiments to understand the chemistry of haze.

“Controlled laboratory experiments are always useful in understanding what is going on, but we will never be able to tell what is happening in the actual environment if we do not have any data from the field,” says Kuwata.

In 2012, outdoor haze killed more than one million people living in Southeast Asia, according to the World Health Organization. Much of the air pollution in the region comes from slash-and-burn practices in Indonesia on drained peatland. A peat layer can be between five and ten meters thick, and when it starts to burn, it’s hard to put out. Burning carbon-rich peat soil creates more smoke than typical forest fires. It’s also harmful to human health and releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the air, which in turn contribute to global warming.

Peat found in Riau Province, Sumatra. (Image credit: Mikinori Kuwata)

Besides posing a health hazard, haze is also changing atmospheric and oceanic systems in tropical Asia. It could have a huge effect on the regional climate, but it remains uncertain what this effect is.

“When people understand these impacts and risks more quantitatively, it will motivate them to stop the haze,” says Kuwata.  

To learn more on the Southeast Asia haze crisis, see Prof. Kuwata's research, a recent Straits Times article, and an in-depth story on haze on CNN.com.

 

Text: Kathryn Free