It's late March, and that means it's yellow dust season here in Seoul.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

It's late March, and that means that it's hwangsa time here in Korea. Hwangsa (황사, 黃沙) is the yellow dust that blows in from China around this time of year, turning the city into something reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic or dystopian science fiction movie. The dust also brings pollutants in and a lot of people wear masks when they have to go outside. The pollutants it carries are:

Sulfur (an acid rain component), soot, ash, carbon monoxide, and other toxic pollutants including heavy metals (such as mercury, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, lead, zinc, copper) and other carcinogens, often accompany the dust storms, as well as viruses, bacteria, fungi, pesticides, antibiotics, asbestos, herbicides, plastic ingredients, combustion products as well as hormone mimicking phthalates.
Luckily it only happens about a day at a time. One day of hwangsa, two or three clear days, then some more hwangsa, and so on until hwangsa season is over.

The overall impression you get when outside is this: it's like the whole city has been covered by a big dusty glass bowl, one that extends across the whole sky and in all directions. This glass bowl has then been turned on to emit a low orange light, and because of this it feels almost as if the light is coming even from the ground itself. So in a sense it actually feels like the earth has been lit up rather than the sky has been darkened.

Today I took advantage of the weather though to take a few pictures, and thanks to Daum's Road View (like Google Street View) we can compare them with a normal sunny day. Clicking on the link will take you to the location and you can walk around yourself a bit as even though the controls are in Korean it's basically the same thing: click on the arrows to go in the direction you want to go. Clicking on the images here will also bring up a much larger version.

First the street near my apartment.

And on a normal day.

Down the street a bit more, looking towards the main road.

Same street on a normal day.

Now next to the school close to the temple.

I took a picture of this road from the same location last month:

or you can explore it for yourself here.

The next picture is from the temple.

This parking lot otherwise looks like this.

Two more pictures from the parking lot:

And again on a normal day.

Now we've left the temple and are back on the streets. Today the sky was this colour.

On another day it would look like this.

Then on to another street:

On a normal day:

The same street from a slightly different location. By the way, the trees look that way because of the terrible pruning job done on them around November. After summer ends and the weather gets cold, the trees get "pruned", which means that teams of guys in a truck go around and completely remove all the new growth from the year before. Because of this pruning job done every year the trees actually look worse just before they are hacked at, because the leaves have fallen off and there is a pretty striking contrast between the relatively thick parts of the trees that never get cut off, and the super thin growth from that season alone, making them look like distorted hands where the palm is twice the size it should be while the fingers jutting out are far too thin and too great in number.

The same location on a normal day.

And finally, one more picture from the same road.

Here it is on a normal day, but take a close look at the trees there. This part of the Road View map was clearly taken in early winter because you can see the unnatural-looking trees there. First too thick, then suddenly way too thin and stringy.

Yeah, so that's Seoul at its worst. Having uploaded these pictures, I should now balance that with a few positive recent developments: the city buses have almost entirely converted to natural gas, in 2005 the city restored a stream that had been paved over in the 1970s, a new forest (Seoul Forest) was created within the city in 2005, and the air quality is continuing to improve year after year. When considering a move to a city like Seoul location is most important, since living next to this park for example (there are a lot of quaint apartments all around it) means living in an area with some fairly good air most of the time.

Now if only we could do something about the horrible pruning job done to the trees every winter.

Also, if you have enough of three types of plants in your house (Areca palm, mother-in-law's tongue, and money plant) then the air inside will be near perfect anyway so proper planning can make living in almost any city possible, as long as there is enough sunlight for them to grow properly.

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