Air pollution turns Kashmir into a blurry landscape

Srinagar, Dec 28: The dense fog cover in Kashmir has severely affected normal life with experts blaming rising air pollution levels for the phenomena.

Experts have blamed increasing fog cover for the rising air pollution levels and temperature inversion phenomenon.

A by-product of temperature inversions in Kashmir is a build-up of fog or haze – an aerosol mixture composed of fine particles found in smog, smoke, and dust.

The trapped aerosols absorb and scatter incoming sunlight, creating a layer of poor visibility.

Srinagar is the largest contributor of smog, smoke, and other human-caused aerosols in Kashmir.

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has issued an advisory that many parts of north India including J&K are likely to see moderate to dense fog conditions until December 31.

The advisory states that central Kashmir, Pulwama district in south Kashmir, and Baramulla district in north Kashmir will witness moderate to dense fog.

The advisory asks people to be careful while driving or outing through any transport and use fog lights during driving.

Kashmir valley is bound by Pir Panjal and Greater Himalayan mountain ranges and these do not allow air masses to find an escape route.

A temperature inversion in late autumn and winter restricts the vertical mixing of air and triggers the build-up of haze primarily comprising dust (PM10 and PM2.5) and smoke (black carbon).

The current PM2.5 concentration at 44 in Srinagar on December 28 is 2.9 times above the recommended limit given by the WHO 24-hour air quality guidelines value.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) at 114 falls in the poor category which is considered to be detrimental to health.

Talking to Greater Kashmir, noted geo-scientist Prof Shakil Ahmad Romshoo blamed the burning of leaves and wood for coal-making amid sub–zero temperatures for the thick layer of fog in Kashmir.

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“Combined effect of low temperature, shallow and stable planetary boundary layer, low ventilation, prolonged dryness and geomorphic set up of Kashmir valley leads to the accumulation and high concentration of particulate pollution in Kashmir during autumn and winter seasons,” Romshoo said.

Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geo-informatics, University of Kashmir (KU), Dr Irfan Rashid told Greater Kashmir that the prevalent fog was due to dry weather prevailing over Kashmir.

He said that the temperature inversion over Kashmir, especially Srinagar restricts the movement of air which receives additional loads of pollutants each day due to traffic, fuel-wood burning for hammams, and coal.

“The haze and fog events are usually prevalent at this time of the year and result in a build-up of primary (particulate matter, black carbon, NOx, SOx) as well as secondary pollutants like ozone, volatile organic compounds, posing environmental and health risks,” Rashid said.

A study published in Nature Scientific Reports suggests that air quality in Srinagar deteriorates significantly, particularly during winter, where the level of PM2.5 touches a peak value of 348 µg/m³ against the Indian permissible limit of 60 µg/m³.

“This haze, laden with high black carbon and particulates, might induce the irritation of the pulmonary tract resulting in frequent coughing, sneezing especially among children and elders. However, the total particulates in haze have albedo reducing potential that would induce snow and glacier melt that needs to be researched further,” Rashid said.

He recommended shifting to non-conventional clean energy sources like electric vehicles, and electric hammams, incentivising the use of public transport besides making it time-efficient.

“These measures will reduce air pollution and subsequently fog or haze,” Rashid said.

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Director Meteorological Centre, Srinagar, Mukhtar Ahmad said that the foggy conditions would prevail in J&K, especially in Kashmir till December 31.

“It needs a good spell of rain to minimise foggy conditions. On January 1, a weak Western Disturbance is likely to hit Kashmir and it might help to reduce some fog cover. At least for the next three days, there will be an increase in fog cover in Kashmir,” he said.

Air pollution has emerged as one of the major challenges to the eco-fragile environment of Kashmir in the last few years.

With the dismal power supply situation in Kashmir, there is high demand for coal which is used in traditional Kashmiri fire-pots popularly known as Kangris.

Coal is obtained by burning of leaves, tree branches and twigs, and this activity is at its peak from autumn to winter across Kashmir.

Extensive air pollution is caused by dusty roads, and emissions from brick kilns and cement and macadam plants in Kashmir.

As per the experts, the situation is bound to get worse as winter reaches its peak.

Romshoo, who has conducted extensive studies on air pollution in Kashmir, said that the majority of the air masses reaching Kashmir were driven by the Westerlies.

“These air masses bring a good proportion of the particulate pollution from the Middle East, South and Central Asia and a few European countries,” he said. “Studies have shown that it was determined that during autumn and winter, besides the local emission sources, a significant amount of PM gets transported to Srinagar from highly potential source regions like central and northern provinces of Pakistan, Central Afghanistan, Eastern Iran and a few adjoining Indian states with contributions of >100 µg/m3 for PM10 and >60 µg/m3 for PM2.5.”

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However, Ramshoo said that the transport, dispersion, and deposition trajectory modelling becomes a challenge over the topographically complex terrain like Kashmir and complicates the estimation of the contribution of local and regional sources particularly under shallow PBL conditions.

A thick cover of fog has been enveloping Kashmir for the last few days.

This has affected the lives of people and hit their daily activities.

Talking to Greater Kashmir, noted pulmonologist and Director SKIMS, Dr Parvaiz A Koul said that the combination of smog and fog is taking a toll on the health of people.

“Pollutants trapped in smog are bad for the respiratory system of humans, especially young and old children besides people with underlying diseases. Smog lowers the working of lungs and leads to an increase in respiratory ailments,” Dr Koul said.

In the last several years, there has been a spurt in respiratory diseases in Kashmir due to air pollution.

As per a study published in Lancet, around 10,000 deaths in J&K annually upto 2019 are attributed to air pollution.

On November 23 last year, air pollution levels were so alarming that even the satellite images captured by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), America’s civil space programme, depicted Kashmir fully covered by a thick blanket of smog

Under the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), authorities have started works on a Rs 33 crore plan in Srinagar to reduce PM10 levels by 2025 to improve the Air Quality Index in Srinagar district.

The project includes creating green zones by way of mass plantations and landscaping along western Highways and adjoining areas, plantation of central verges, medians of major city roads, paving of earthen shoulders, and installation of fountains in Srinagar City.

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