‘Round-tripping’ smoke to keep Sydney in a record pollution haze


22 November 2019

Published https://www.smh.com.au

AUSTRALIA – Sydneysiders are potentially facing days cloaked in a smoke haze as record air pollution levels push the city up the ranks of cities with the foulest air on the planet.

Air quality over Sydney and much of coastal NSW to the north hovered in the poor to hazardous range on Friday. The Harbour City climbed to at least the ninth most polluted major city, according to the AirVisual website.

On Tuesday, Rouse Hill recorded a reading of 806 for particle pollution of 2.5 microns or smaller, the highest such tally from smoke on record for Sydney, the government’s Environment, Energy & Science unit said.

Only the 1117 PM2.5 reading for Liverpool during the 2009 dust storm was higher.

“The past two months have been the dustiest months on record,” a spokeswoman for the unit, said. “The impacts of the severe and ongoing drought have led to the highest levels of dust recorded in NSW since our rural air quality monitoring networks began during the Millennium Drought.”

PM2.5 pollution levels from bushfire smoke to the city’s north “were the highest ever recorded in NSW”, she said. “Air quality will continue to be poor in areas close to the bushfires and in locations impacted by smoke blown from the bushfires.”

Bimal KC, meteorologist with the Bureau of Meteorology, said that, while the smoke haze over the Sydney basin might ease into Friday evening, an inversion weather pattern that limits mixing of the atmosphere should see the haze return on Saturday morning.

One source of the smoke for the city was the huge fire near Gospers Mountain in the Wollemi National Park to the north. “That fire is big enough to create a lot of fire and smoke.”

On Friday afternoon, thunderstorms and lightning were threatening to add to the blazes.

Even if some of the Gospers Mountain smoke drifted away from Sydney, prevailing winds from a high-pressure system in the Tasman Sea would likely top up the haze with “round-tripping smoke” from blazes burning in north-eastern NSW, he said.

Relief for Sydney might take a couple more days with southerly winds bringing cooler conditions and the potential for showers and even thunderstorms, he said. On current forecasts, though, Sunday and Monday are likely to be hazy.

Temperatures will also start to climb to the mid-30s on Tuesday in the city and a couple of degrees warmer in the west.

While the city – and fire grounds to the north – may collect some rain in coming days, falls from thunderstorms are likely to be short-lived and isolated, he said.

The city’s extended period of poor air quality could have long-term health effects, Sotiris Vardoulakis, from the Australian National University, said.

“Toxic air is currently the number one global environmental health hazard and we need to do something about it,” Professor Vardoulakis said.

“There is a myth that smoke that comes from burning natural fuel like wood or biomass is not as harmful as burning coal, oil or other chemicals.”

He said the health issues would only worsen with climate change causing more extreme weather, such as major bushfires and prolonged heatwaves.

He said there were ways to reduce exposure to smoke from bushfires by spending more time indoors, shutting windows and using air purifiers, and limiting physical exercise outdoors.

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