In the forests of Yakushima, a small, mountainous island off the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, the pine trees are dying, and an environmental professor believes that the culprit is China’s pollution and smog being brought in by the winds from continental Asia. Osamu Nagafuchi, a professor of ecosystem studies at the University of Shiga in central Japan, started studying the trend in the late ‘90s at the start of China’s heavy industrialization and believes the pollution is now causing pine trees in Yakusima’s primeval forest – one of the few left in Japan – to die at an accelerated rate.
Professor Nagafuchi noticed the problem first in satellite photographs, where the overhead images showed a large increase in the number of dead trees between 1992 and 1996. The professor had hiked to Yakushima’s mountain tops in 1992 and found blackened snow. After analysis, he found it contained silicon, aluminium and other byproducts from the burning of coal, used mainly in Chinese homes and factories. Checking the maps of wind current, he theorized that the pollutants were carried over the East China Sea by the wind from China. His theories were first met with ridicule by forestry officials and established scientists who accused him of sensationalizing the death of pine trees to get public attention. But in 2000, when Japan started feeling – and seeing with their own eyes – the effects of China’s smog being blown over the sea to the Japanese archipelago, his theories gained more belief and traction. The central government’s Forestry Agency then allowed Professor Nagafuchi to set up monitoring stations in Yakushima to gather data. On one of Professor Nagafuchi’s climbs to check highest of these monitoring stations he pointed out the thin haze that should have been pristine air, according to him. “The worst is when winds blow from Beijing and Tianjin”, alluding to the two Chinese cities around 900 miles away, Nagafuchi said. “This is proof that when such a big country industrializes, its effect will spread everywhere.”
Japanese cities in the western region have grown anxious these past few months over the environmental effects of pollution from China, after Beijing recorded highest-ever increases in pollution levels. Officials in western Japan issued warnings in their cities of the high levels of particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers or less – what is commonly called PM2.5 – elements that are small enough to be inhaled and embedded in human lungs. On one of these particularly smog-hazed days, local Yakushima officials used one of Professor Nagafuchi’s monitoring stations to measure PM2.5 levels in the air. Not surprisingly, the levels found were above government-recommended safe levels.
Whatever the cause of the pines dying, it is still a losing situation for Yakushima, whose forests provide a rare patch of primitive ecosystem in a densely populated nation. Many of the island’s residents are believers in Professor Nakafuchi’s theories, and they worry that the pollutants will threatening not only their health, but also their way of living. Hikers and other ecotourists form a big part of the island residents’ livelihood. Most visitors come to see Yakushima’s majestic cedar trees, which have so far been unaffected by the mysterious ailment killing the pines. The cedars – the oldest of which is estimated to be at least 2600 years old – won the island the distinction of a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. The dying pines are already from an endangered species found only on Yakushima and a neighboring island.
[via The Age]
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