“Polar Vortex II: The Reckoning” blanketed much of the eastern United States with snow this week, but take heart: at least all of that fresh powder didn’t contain as much acidity as a glass of red wine. That’s what happened in South Korea, where ‘acid snow,’ described by Arirang News as a mixture of snow and yellow dust, fell across Seoul on Monday. The Chosun Ilso reports that some localized precipitation had a pH level of 3.8—roughly 1,000 times more acidic than usual.
A quick chemistry refresher: the pH scale runs from zero to twelve, zero being battery acid and twelve being Maalox.
The scale is logarithmic, meaning that each whole number increment represents a tenfold increase/decrease.
Acid precipitation forms when industrial pollutants such as sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide combine with water particles in the atmosphere and fall back to earth as either snow or rain depending on the season. The phenomenon certainly isn’t new (see this 1981 New York Times stub) and it was the cause célèbre of the early 1990s, but you almost never hear about it anymore. That’s a mistake, because new evidence suggests that we’re already receiving the atmospheric equivalent of secondhand smoke from across the Pacific.
A study, released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that Chinese-based pollution accounts for close to 10% of daily sulfate concentration over the western U.S., at any given time. On days when the westerlies are gusting strongly, that number climbs as high as 24%. Over at Smithsonian Magazine, Joseph Stromberg points out the irony that a large percentage of China’s emissions come from the production of goods bound for America.
Wind-blown Chinese pollutants are also the likeliest cause of South Korea’s freaky acid snow, given that the smaller nation is not exactly known for being an industrial powerhouse.
The near-constant stream of air-pocalypse stories coming out of China—complete with ghastly photos of impenetrable smog blotting out the sun—makes good rubbernecking fodder for American audiences (often, to the point of sheer absurdity). But although it’s tempting to imagine that the severe Chinese pollution is simply hovering in place like Eeyore’s rain cloud, the planet’s circulatory system is telling us otherwise. Chinese pollution is fast becoming our own, and that’s especially bad news considering that the E.P.A appears to have hit a wall on reducing emissions stateside.
I’ve long predicted that a full-on ‘90s revival was nigh, what with a new Furby onslaught, Nirvana’s “Nevermind” getting re-released, and Michael Bay directing a Ninja Turtles movie. Unfortunately, it looks like we might soon be able to add acid rain/snow concerns to that list too.
Trent Knoss is the digital editor at Backpacker Magazine and lives in Boulder, Colorado.