The UK researchers seeking origins of China's smog

Meteorological gantry

Meteorological gantry

18 April 2017 by Jack Smith

On a scrubby patch of land in Beijing's north-west, over which the capital's original Mongol citadel's walls would have once cast an imposing shadow, nine pristine white shipping containers are positioned around the stark silhouette of a slender meteorological gantry that, at 325 metres, stands more than a head taller than the Eiffel Tower.

Cables and plastic tubing snake from each container and criss-cross the site which, on the crisp winter day we visit was just warming up with activity, as researchers working on the Atmospheric Pollution & Human Health in a Chinese Megacity (APHH China) programme began to collate the previous night's data and make adjustments to over 20 tonnes of instruments, many of them prototypes, shipped to China from Europe weeks before. Others were on their way down from checking equipment at the very top of the site's tower.

According to the project's co-lead, Professor Fu Pingqing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Atmospheric Physics, which is hosting the APHH China super-site, the tower was erected by the Chinese government in 1979 after President Richard Nixon noted the capital's appalling levels of air pollution on his ground-breaking visit to the country.

A joint investment equivalent to £11 million, APHH China was the first major international research plan that the Chinese co-funder, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), ever commissioned. It is one of two with Research Council UK, making the UK the only international partner that NSFC has partnered with at such a high level. The research being conducted at the Beijing super-site is of significant interest to policymakers in both the UK and in China, as it aims to monitor not only the concentrations and varieties of airborne particles and volatile gases in the atmosphere and their potential impact on human health, but also to challenge existing models used for forecasting air pollution.

Jack visits the shipping-container lab

Dr Stephen Worrall shows Jack around the lab

In their snug shipping container, Dr Stephen Worrall and PhD student Archit Mehra of the University of Manchester talk us through their project to monitor peaks in the emissions of atmospheric pollutants, compiling data they can then pass on to other teams analysing chemical composition. Each pollutant, when measured at the site, has a unique 'fingerprint' that researchers can use to pinpoint its source. A major aim of the project is to find all those sources, some of which lie well outside of the city itself, and in turn to gain a better understanding of where policies might be effective. In nearby shipping containers, fellow researcher Dr Rachel Dunmore of the University of York explained that other teams are monitoring black carbon, nitric acid, ozone and the levels of aerosols attributed to domestic activity such as heating and cooking which, at peak times, can represent a major fraction of airborne pollutants.

Crucial to compiling comprehensive data, Dr Worrall tells us, is the presence of other researchers with different specialisms. "If we were here alone, we wouldn't have nearly so much information to work with," he said, adding that the UK researchers are, thanks to their close proximity to their Chinese peers, able to easily exchange data, discuss mutually-observed anomalies and, crucially, share spare parts for the often temperamental hardware on-site.

If we were here alone, we wouldn't have nearly so much information to work with

In the last few years, the Chinese government has gradually begun to embrace top-level scientific research into the causes of air pollution and concentrations of airborne particulate matter in urban centres, which is now viewed as a public health crisis and a potential source of social unrest. Sixteen UK universities and research institutes, six leading Chinese research institutions and three UK partner research organisations are conducting research at the Beijing super-site.

Ultimately, it is hoped that by compiling a comprehensive set of data that incorporates all types of pollutants and all the major sources, scientists and policymakers will together be able to better design effective ways to control urban air pollution, and reduce the impacts on health. Existing models of pollution, UK APHH co-investigator Professor Alastair Lewis of the University of York told us, are often inadequate, with sometimes disproportionate emphasis placed on historic sources of pollutants such as power stations, but with other large contributors, such as cooking, agriculture and biomass burning, overlooked.

Many of the more than 50 UK researchers who will work at the site have previously been studying air pollution in London - one of Europe's most polluted cities - and are now putting their expertise to good use in Beijing, which is now setting an example for other Chinese cities regularly blanketed by some of the world's worst air pollution. The friendly, professional exchanges taking place between UK and Chinese researchers at the APHH super-site in Beijing represent a new, coordinated and transparent approach to an issue that has health and welfare implications for urban residents across the globe.

The next round of monitoring will begin in May 2017. Zongbo Shi, Senior Lecturer in Atmospheric Biogeochemistry at the University of Birmingham, who is informally coordinating the APHH-China programme, said: "The winter field campaign has produced a huge amount of information which enables us to update the dataset of key air pollutants and improve our understanding of how major hazes form. The next campaign will last five weeks from 22 May to 26 June, aiming to disentangle the interaction of meteorological and chemical processes in Beijing atmosphere during summer smog events. The data will help us to develop cost-effective mitigation strategies for every level from citywide to what individuals can do in their day-to-day lives to improve air quality, health and welfare in Beijing and beyond."

The Atmospheric Pollution & Human Health in a Chinese Megacity programme is a Newton Fund programme delivered by NERC, the Medical Research Council, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

Meteorological gantry and laboratory

Meteorological gantry and laboratory