California is a world leader in the fight against climate change and harmful polluting emissions, due to a surplus of cutting edge, bold laws put into place by CA governor Jerry Brown. With the signing of SB 100 this past September that commits the state to 100% clean energy by 2045, and the executive order B-55-18 that commits the states entire economy to complete carbon neutrality by 2045, one would think the pollution in California to be quite low in comparison to other states. However, this is not the case as the American Lung Association rated Sacramento the 5th worst city in the nation for ozone pollution. A quick visit to their website, lung.org, reveals that many other prominent CA cities such as Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Modesto, Fresno, and Visalia to be in the top ten worst polluted cities in the US for both short-term and year-round particle pollution. So why does CA, despite its efforts to curb energy and industrial emissions, rank so poorly for air pollution?
Much of the problem has to do with California’s topography. Cities situated in the valley, such as Modesto, Bakersfield, Fresno, Visalia, and Sacramento, are surrounded by mountain ranges like the Sierra Nevadas, the Cascades, Coastal, Klamath, and Transverse. The mountains work as a bowl, in which air is trapped and sits, and little to no air circulation occurs. Here, pollution continually accumulates and compounds bringing it up to unhealthy levels. The problem is then exacerbated in winter as temperature inversions occur, trapping cold stagnant air below a layer of warmer air in which pollutants have no chance to be “vented” out as they might during the summer, thanks to the physical property of heat rising.
Another factor in this excessive pollution has been the increase in population throughout California, especially the central valley. This has led to an increase in cars, most of which run off gasoline or diesel combustion engines. These vehicles emit harsh pollutants such as volatile organic compounds, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and more. In warmer temperatures, such as the summertime months, some of these pollutants are involved in a series of chemical reactions involving sunlight in which they are transformed into ozone, an extremely corrosive and dangerous pollutant that can cause chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, or even worsen the condition of those with chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma. These issues are especially common in the more central valley of California.
The California central valley, home to cities such as Visalia, Modesto, and Fresno, is one of the most productive agricultural regions throughout the state. Alongside quantities emitted by enormous amounts of diesel guzzling and polluting farm equipment, more pollution occurs when crops are burned at the end of the season, typically in fall, to prepare the land for the next year’s crop. However, aside from the smoke that the burning produces, it leaves another pollution source in its wake, long after the flames and ash have died down: bare soil. In particularly dry and drought-stricken years, wind seamlessly picks up loose soil and dirt, and disseminates the tiny dust and dirt particles throughout the air, adding to the particulate matter. Often this occurs in winter when fields are bare and or left to fallow, as there exists no crop roots to hold down and compact soil. With no rain, soil is parched and easily moved about, pollutants hover and compact in the atmosphere, and residents using wood-burning stoves and fireplaces only exponentiate the issue.
With these multiple sources and traps of pollution, it’s no wonder that California has such horrid pollution, enough to classify it as the worst in the United States. Many measures have been passed in order to curb and control these emissions, at least from industry, but it is not nearly enough. Change cannot be made to the California topography. So, it is advisable that going forward, not only industry, but residents take action as well to help reduce these harmful pollutants. Be it switching from gas guzzlers to electric vehicles, replacing wood burning fireplaces for natural gas or electric, or simply using less energy, there is much that can be done to reduce toxic pollution and emissions.
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© 2018 Weather Forecaster Alexis Clouser