July 20, 2012
The Progress is (In)Visible
Yesterday seemed like the first really hot day in a long time, the temperature was in the high 80s to 90s and the evening remained warm with virtually no breeze. Despite the heat, it was remarkably clear.
From my thirty third floor perch in a Downtown office building I couldn’t help but notice how remarkable the vistas were. I could watch the planes as they descended into LA International and on the drive home the San Gabriel Mountains were exceptionally sharp—virtually no haze or smog, no brown gunk obscuring the view.
Just a few years ago, the notion that the temperatures could be in the 80s and the sky could be blue seemed impossible. In fact, Angelenos of my vintage recall that when they participated in PE or physically exerted themselves in the 1950s and 60s the effort of simply catching a deep breath on a smoggy day was daunting (one’s chest would grip up and a coughing fit was inevitable).
Yesterday’s view was so crisp and clear that I had to research how far we had come in the past few decades.
Sure enough the data are impressive yet, surprisingly, little discussed. In 1976 the LA Basin had, depending on which federal clean air standard you use (the “old”, the 1997 or the 2008 standard), 28 times [old], 3 times [1997 standard] or more than twice [new standard] as many days exceeding “Health Standard Levels” as in 2010. We have gone from 102 days of Stage 1 episodes of high smog concentrations in 1976 to having one day of a Stage 1 episode since 1999.
This dramatic turnaround of what seemed like a hopeless endeavor just a few decades ago—-more people and more cars seemed to insure worsening air quality—-has taken place despite a dramatic increase of 38% in the population of Los Angeles County (from 7,082,000 in 1970 to an estimated 9,800,000 in 2010) and a concomitant increase in cars, trucks, trailers and motorcycles of 20% in the last thirteen years alone. I suspect the increase in cars and trucks would mirror that of the population were it extrapolated back to 1970 (I couldn’t find the data).
I can understand the reluctance to “crow about the success” by air quality officials and others who are responsible for the transformation; as one former official told me, “the AQMD doesn’t brag enough about it because we have much left to do.” Additionally, he noted that “the air we can’t see is really quite harmful…because we have crushed the particles.”
So, I offer the caveats and admonitions that there is much left to be done and that the “invisible” air that doesn’t mar our vistas still has microscopic particles that are harmful….nevertheless, the reduction in visible smog and the marked decline in both Stage 1 episodes and days in which the various Federal clean air standards are exceeded are achievements to celebrate. On an 87 degree day when the vistas stretch from the ocean to Mt. Wilson and are unsullied by brown gunk and you can take a deep breath without seizing up your lungs, you know that we are moving in the right direction.