Haze Blocks Airplane Landings in Sumatra

Haze Blocks Airplane Landings in Sumatra

25 June 2013

published by http://blogs.wsj.com

Indonesia — PEKANBARU – On Monday morning, not even jet planes could penetrate the haze emanating from hundreds of fires raging across Sumatra Island.

Passengers aboard a morning Lion Air flight were given a jolt when the pilot maneuvered to land at Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province, as the city was shrouded in murky soot from blazes that have sent smoke as far as Singapore and Malaysia.

As the plane came in to land, the layer of smog gave way to provide a glimpse of land and houses below before the engines thrust again and the pilot lifted the jet’s nose and retracted the landing gear. Passengers reacted more with surprise than fear as the land disappeared under the haze.

Minutes later, the captain informed passengers that the aborted landing was a normal maneuver given the low visibility. The pilot then took the plane into a holding pattern for 20 minutes, checked to see whether the poor visibility was persisting, and diverted to Medan, almost three hundred miles to the north.

“We only had 400 feet of visibility and we needed 420,” said pilot Waryanto, who, like many Indonesians uses one name, after the flight landed safely in Medan. “It’s not the first time it’s happened.”

The airport at Pekanbaru closed for about two hours, after which the passengers reboarded in Medan before landing successfully at their destination amid clearer skies.

Across the province, hotspots – zones of intense heat identified by satellite monitoring – increased to 265 Monday from 154 Sunday, Indonesia’s disaster agency said, citing data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to NASA, there have been almost 7,000 hotspots this month.

Indonesian officials and activists say many of the fires appear to have been set to clear land for palm plantations. The country’s leader, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Monday apologized for the polluting haze caused by the blazes, and pledged more action to extinguish the fires before more billowing plumes of haze fan out across the region.

On the ground in Pekanbaru, residents struggled to continue their day-to-day lives in this sprawling city of about a million people, even as the smell of burning land permeates the air – indoors and out – in various places of town.
The past five days, residents say, have been the worst.

Since the middle of last week, haze has crept into town especially at night, when car headlights struggled to pierce the gloom and an electric billboard declared the air quality as “unhealthy.”

“It goes everywhere, right into your sleeping room,” said an environmental researcher.

Political parties have been passing out face masks at busy intersections downtown amid worsening haze. Taxi driver Syaharizal said he went through all five masks that he received in four days.

“They’re cheap and thin,” he said. “They’re not made for something like this.” He said he couldn’t work or go outdoors Sunday night, which he said was the worst he’d ever seen the air in his life.

At an air force base on the outskirts of the city, cloud-seeding and water-bombing operations got under way Saturday in a joint operation of the national technology agency, the disaster agency, the military, police and air force. In a room at the base, more than a dozen scientists and military personnel pored over computers and maps of the region’s hotspots Monday afternoon, charting where to send three tons of salt a day and more than 5,000 liters of water that afternoon.

“It’s getting worse,” said air force Col. Andiawan, as he surveyed the results of sorties to the day’s most troublesome hotspots of Dumai and Siak. “But Indonesia as a country will take care of this.”

It’s a difficult mission, however. One of the problems is that Riau experiences an equatorial monsoon, giving it two peak rainy seasons in April and November. Right now, it’s hard to make rain, said Erwin Mulyana, a researcher with the technology agency, especially relative to the last time scientists tried earlier this year.

In February, the agency attempted to induce clouds to rain before they could reach Jakarta, the national capital that’s regularly hard hit by flooding in the rainy season. The program was seen as experimental and largely inconclusive.

“For the cloud-seeding program in February, we could go all over, there were so many clouds,” Mr. Mulyana said. “But here there’s not that much to work with. Hopefully that’ll change.”

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