Smelling the Air in Kanpur

Winter haze piles up against the Himalayas above the Indo-Gangetic Plain.      (Credit: Earth Observatory)

“When the plane was about 30 minutes from touchdown, we could start to smell the air,” said David Giles. “It was shocking.”

Giles — a young scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center — was en route to Kanpur, a large Indian industrial city on the banks of the Ganges river. Dust and soot tend to hover over the region, which is sandwiched between the sharp edge of the Tibetan Plateau to the north and the highlands of the Deccan Plateau to the south.

There’s so much soot in the air that satellites can routinely see a cloud of haze blanketing the region.

The bowl-like Indo-Gangetic Plain is second only to some parts of China for having the heaviest load of air pollution in the world. In the spring, when dust blows in from the deserts to the West, aerosols from factories, buses and trucks, and fires are especially heavy. So much so, in fact, that NASA researchers suggested recently that dust and soot may be driving the retreat of Himalayan glaciers by altering the monsoon.

Giles was in Kanpur to man one of NASA’s AERONET stations in the region as part of the ongoing TIGERZ campaign. He spent 17 days in Kanpur hauling the instrument around and getting harassed by local police officers, the occasional herd of roaming sheep and dust storms. In between all that, he spent the bulk of his time collecting measurements to determine whether dust and soot can glom onto one another to create new types of hybrid aerosols.

They do, he found, a seemingly mundane point but one that’s of considerable interest to the scientists trying to sort out how these two types of aerosols affect the climate. He presented his results in detail this week to colleagues at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco.

I nabbed him after his talk in the afternoon, to have a beer and talk through his travels. I asked him what was the most memorable part of the trip to India. “Well, it was unbelievably hot,” he said with a laugh. “Temperatures routinely hit 105 degrees.”

And how was the air? “You’d get used to it after a while,” said Giles, “but, at first, in the taxi, we were holding our sleeves over our mouths just to avoid breathing the stuff.”

Giles and colleagues using sun photometers to measure aerosols from a rooftop in Kanpur.  (Credit: Giles)

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

4 thoughts on “Smelling the Air in Kanpur”

  1. Glad you guys are wasting my hard earned tax money with your junkets and navel gazing at earth when NASA should be advancing aeronautical science or exploring space. Enjoy your beer.

  2. very informative.
    thanks .

    sad how govt of India wishes to develop w/o taking care of such disastrous issues.

  3. I just returned from India and found similar conditions in Delhi and Jaipur. The air is incredibly polluted, to the point where you can smell it and practically taste it. I’m guessing the pollutants mix with water vapor to form the heavy fog/smog that Delhi gets in the evenings. I laughed when reported Delhi’s weather conditions as “Smoke”, but when I got there, it was really the most appropriate label!

    Thanks for the reporting. These kinds of studies may help to sort our reasonable treaties with the “developing nations”, and hopefully will make sure they carry their weight!

  4. Well Adam, I don’t know how many times Giles has been to India and which parts of the country has he visited but let me tell you one thing – I live in India and I know India better, at least better than you or Giles. Giles has mentioned Kanpur to be “unbelievably hot” and “105 degrees” but as far as this time of the year i.e. December – January is concerned the maximum temperature is around 72 degrees and minimum is around 40 degrees. If you think that’s hot …I’ve got nothing to say. Yes, in summer (April-May) it’s about 100-105 degrees maximum but that’s usual and has nothing to do with pollution or global warming. You can find about it in ancient Indian literature as well. So, I would say don’t go over the top about it. Even the picture you’ve shown is about fog and even that is not so unusual because in India humidity levels are high, so when it’s winter there’s definitely a chance of fog. Well this is just pure misinformation and the blog’s written in a way to please the American Government and people. I don’t deny the fact that there’s no pollution in India but that is restricted to a handful of industrial areas and cities (like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata) quite unlike the US. Don’t believe me? Check this article on Forbes :
    I don’t know about tasting the air, maybe Giles had the smell of Indian spices.
    Spend some of the US taxpayer’s money on US as well instead of taking a dig at other countries. America claims to be the world’s most powerful country but with power comes responsibility as well (like the responsibilty to cut down on emissions).
    Lastly, I would like to say that there’s no point pointing fingers at each other especially on topics like Global warming. If we want to save the world, we’ve to work together and quickly before it gets too late. It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. So people at NASA better find a solution to Global Warming. Now you know where to spend your money

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