Apocalyptically horrendous air has descended upon India’s sprawling capital territory, Delhi.
According to November 4 measurements taken by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, the Air Quality Index (AQI) hit 534. For perspective, the scale only goes up to 500, wherein levels are described as “Hazardous.”
“534 is higher than your highest value — which is insane,” Anthony Wexler, the director of the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California, said in an interview.
But, come early November, terrible air quality becomes the norm in northern India. This time of year, farmers burn off bounties of crop waste to clear fields.
Combined with other pollutants emitted from the over 18 million people living in the Delhi area, this means the air becomes laden with microscopic bits of pollution smaller than the width of a human hair, known as Particulate Matter 2.5, or PM 2.5.
This morning, fine particulate concentrations in #Delhi moved above 500 ug/m3 for the first time this season.
— Robert Rohde (@RARohde) November 5, 2018
Commonly, Beijing, China, is looked to as a place with ridiculously poor air quality, as the smog forces its residents and soldiers to wear masks. But India might now be worse.
“India has pretty much surpassed China in regards to air pollution problems,” Gabriele Pfister, deputy director of the National Center of Atmospheric Research’s atmospheric chemistry lab, said in an interview.
Air quality in India — or anywhere — can become unhealthy or harmful when pollution combines with the right weather conditions, noted Wexler. For instance, pollution from fires or normal city-life can become trapped under a layer of warm air, known as an inversion layer. This traps the cooler air below.
“The air just sits by the ground, where people are living and breathing,” said Wexler.
The Indian government is well aware that Delhi’s pollution is unacceptable, but the problem doesn’t have an immediate, easy fix.
“It’s hard on farmers — they need to clear their fields to sow their crops in the next three weeks,” Rajesh Kumar, a project scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research who is working with the Indian government, said in an interview.
Kumar said the Indian government is now collaborating with farmers to encourage new agriculture techniques that discourage burning, such as converting leftover crops to resources industries need, or using agricultural waste to fertilize the fields.
Over time, this could mean significantly less smoke getting trapped in Delhi.
“It should not be inevitable,” Pfister said of the hazardous Indian pollution.
Though the harmful pollution can’t yet be stopped, it can be forecast.
A joint effort between India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences and the National Center of Atmospheric Research has developed an air quality forecasting system that gives residents a 72-hour forecast to prepare for the hazardous air, said Kumar.
But not just that. Once particulate levels hit 250 parts per million, or ppm, Kumar said the government will tell major power plants and industry to to ramp down or close, while encouraging public transit.
Yet, once the particulate pollution arrives, not everyone can avoid it — though they should.
Both U.S. government and university researchers have repeatedly shown that breathing this stuff is bad for your heart, as it accelerates plaque build-up in blood vessels.
“They [PM 2.5] basically induce heart attacks,” said Wexler.
When it gets bad, some people can try to leave.
“You can take the train somewhere and hang out somewhere till it gets better,” said Wexler. But, he recognizes that not everyone has that privilege.
In that case, you can try and stay indoors. And you definitely shouldn’t exercise.
“You’re getting permission to be a couch potato,” said Wexler.
And anyone living in the pollution-filled Indian capital can also vote for candidates that support cleaning up the air, to avoid such horrendous air pollution events.
“You can make sure you vote for the right political party when the new election comes up,” emphasized Wexler. “Which, incidentally, is pertinent to our country [the U.S.] now, too.”