Working with China to tackle air pollution

Beijing Air Pollution (By Kentaro IEMOTO from Tokyo, via Wikimedia Commons)

The University of Birmingham is embarking upon several new research collaborations with top universities and research institutes in China in the general area of atmospheric science - specifically looking at the causes and impacts of poor air quality and atmospheric pollution events in Beijing, and the prediction of future extreme weather events in China and East Asia.

Birmingham has an internationally-leading reputation for air quality research, and further strengths in meteorology, within the Environmental Health Sciences research group in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences.  

Planned collaborative projects are as follows:

Air Pollution and Human Health – a major UK-Chinese field study

Many Chinese cities have an air pollution problem, leading to reductions in life expectancy for millions of people.  Recognising this, and the complementary research expertise in this area in the UK and in China, the UK NERC and MRC, and Chinese NSFC, have funded a major research programme in this area.  

The University of Birmingham is leading a £2.6m consortium of seven UK universities to address air pollution sources in Beijing, collaborating with leading Chinese institutions such as Tsinghua and Peking universities and the Institute for Atmospheric Physics and Guangzhou Institute for Geochemistry within the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Key academic staff involved from Birmingham are Professor Roy Harrison, Dr Zongbo Shi and Dr William Bloss

The project will comprise major field observations in Beijing in Autumn 2016 and Spring/Summer 2017, followed by laboratory and data analysis and numerical model simulations. Currently detailed planning for these experiments is underway, and the group is excited by the scale of the challenge, the opportunity to make a real impact - in terms of informing policy leading to improved air quality, and hence human health, for over 20m residents of Beijing.  

Atmospheric Chamber Study of new Atmospheric Processes

One key aspect of air quality is understanding the chemical processes which lead to the removal of pollutants (and the formation of new species).  Recent Birmingham research has discovered that alkene-ozone reactions can lead to chemical processing of sulphur emissions from the oceans – potentially affecting acid rain, and climate.  In a further new NERC project, teams from Birmingham (led by Dr William Bloss) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry will collaborate to study these reactions using a new atmospheric simulation (“smog”) chamber facility at CAS Guangzhou. 

Do Ship Emitted Particles Affect Ocean Productivity and hence CO2 Removal?

Tiny plants – phytoplankton - in the ocean take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and help regulate CO2 levels.  These need various nutrients to grow, and it has recently been realised that one possible source of these nutrients is airborne particles emitted from ship exhausts – i.e. shipping activity may increase nutrient supply to the oceans.  However, ship emitted particles also contain species such as copper which is potentially toxic to marine phytoplankton.  In a current Royal-Society funded project, the University of Birmingham (lead: Dr Zongbo Shi) and Ocean University of China are collaborating to collect ship emitted particles, analyse their composition in the lab, and hence assess their overall impact upon marine phytoplankton levels. 

Extreme Meteorological Events

In parallel, Birmingham is leading a new project to improve understanding of the best ways to predict the future likelihood of extreme meteorological events in China and East Asia.  For example, high precipitation and damaging wind speeds, such as cyclones and typhoons, which have substantial environmental, health and economic impacts.  The Birmingham team brings expertise in prediction of future-climate-change related impacts upon the probability of extreme events (supporting activities ranging from emergency planning to insurance company risk estimates).  The project is jointly led with Chinese partners from Nanjing University of Science and Technology (NUIST), Nanjing University, the Chinese Meteorological Administration (CMA), and the Institute of Atmospheric Physics (Chinese Academy of Sciences).  The Birmingham team is led by Dr Gregor Leckebusch, with the project overall supported by the UK Newton Fund via the UK MetOffice, in the context of the Climate Science for Service Partnership with China (CSSP-China).