Sunday 23 June 2013

Reasons to be cheerful, part .sg

"A bit of cough and splutter
But no phlegm in the gutter!"
It has been so murky from air pollution in Singapore that it's merited a week-long flag on en.wikipedia's In the news section.  They call it the 2013 Southeast Asian Haze.  The chaps in Singapore call it all the Indonesians' fault. Anyone here use palm-oil?  It's your fault because it is produced by tropical peasants practicing slash-and-burn agriculture for pennies in their rain forest and the ould burning sometimes gets out of control.  I bet there's palm-oil in the lurid confections we buy when we're feeling in need of a treat.  PSI (Pollutants Standards Index) has a 1-500 scale and has been up over 400 ("Hazardous": a category worse than "very unhealthy") in Singapore these last few days.

The girl who invented herself keeps the dog in Singapore and lives there when she's not living out of a suitcase in her AsiaPac peregrinations.  We are all concerned for her: "don't jog outside" we say from afar, "keep the dog inside", "buy one of those white cotton masks that are such a fashion accessory for Japanese cyclists".  But in the words of the immortal Ian Dury, there are reasons to be cheerful even if not necessarily:
"A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it
you're welcome we can spare it ... yellow socks"
I thought my own additional lyrics at the top of the post enshrined the can-do business as usual spirit that makes you think that Singapore might once have been a British colony and have a persistent racial-memory sort of stiff upper lip.  ANNyway, it looks like the worst is over, with several consecutive readings below 100 "moderate" this morning. Phew, everyone can get back to their offices and make money.

We don't often get those sorts of problems in Ireland - no tornadoes, only the wet end of hurricanes, no volcanoes or earthquakes.  Although my family was personally affected by Eyjafjallajökull when it blew its Icelandic top 3 years ago, and air-travel was suspended.  The daughters Dau.I and Dau.II, then 14 and 16, had chosen to go visit an old friend in Switzerland and had to repatriate themselves 1930s style by train and boat and train and boat.  It wasn't strictly necessary because the girls were well capable of managing on their own (home-educated, not infantalised) but we fired up the network and asked the friend of a neighbour to meet them in Paris to see them across the city to the Eurostar for an allez simple to London.  They got breakfast in London with another old friend.  It was an awfully big adventure and nobody died.  Like the Singapore business, Eyjafjallajökull was all over in a short week.

There are clearly reasons to be cheerful it wasn't like 1783 when, 230 years ago this month, another Icelandic volcano Laki just downhill from the Vatnajökull glacier blew its top and continued to belch crap into the atmosphere for at least eight months.  While Laki was throwing shapes centre-stage another nearby fissure in the crust called Grímvötn was doing its own riffs for about two years at the same time. The quanities are scarcely credible, nearly 14.7 km3of lava was ejected.  That's enough to turn the entire island of Ireland into a car-park covered with 18cm of rock.  The basalt lava stays more or less local, although particulate matter rained down as ash over much of NorthWest Europe: in England 1783 was known as the Sand Summer. For more widespread effect, 120,000,000 tons of sulphur dioxide (which when mixed with water makes sulphurous acid) and 8,000,000 tons of hydrofluoric acid (that is used to etch glass) were send up into the atmosphere.

The Icelanders, in their own under-stated unhysterical way, call the episode Skaftáreldar the Skaftá fires.  But it had serious consequences for them.  Half the livestock in the country died as forage withered in the acid rain.  And what they did eat was contaminated with fluoride as my dandelions were probably contaminated with Caesium after Chernobyl in 1986.  Fluoride is good in small quantities and many governments add it to the water to reduce dental caries but in larger quantities it flushes calcium out of the bones.  It is estimated that a quarter of all Icelanders perished in the rain or from famine over the next year.  The pollution killed thousands slowly across Europe over the next 12 months and probably caused some really extreme weather conditions including a severe 1783/84 winter that did for many more people. One dit que the disruption to the harvest over the next several years annoyed everyone so much that it precipitated the French Revolution in 1789 - but we don't have a control to that experiment.

 Further reading: Erik Klemetti has a nice article in Wired with suitable scientific references.

1 comment:

  1. There was a feeling of near hysteria and we did the Irish proud by checking on the PSI every 2 minutes. It was a period of 3 days of discomfort nothing more. And a noticeable lack of concern about the lower orders continue to work in gardens. And very little sympathy for those who are actually living in/near the burning plantations who are paid the lowest of the low and suffered the most. The concern was all about us fat cats living in Singapore and being put out for a couple of days because we are not used to it and by the Gods someone has to pay. I personally am not tracking the PSI, if the air feels good enough to run, then run.