China’s notoriously noxious smog from its factories and cities is not only attacking plants as well as people and forcing Beijing parents to keep their children masked and indoors. The country’s polluted air is killing trees, including majestic cedars and other trees in Japan, according to the research of Osamu Nagafuchi, an environmental engineer and professor of ecosystem studies at the University of Shiga Prefecture in central Japan.
Located in southwestern Japan, Yakushima Island is a Unesco World Heritage site. There are at least 1,900 species of plants on the island, including primeval cedars that were logged for centuries to build Buddhist temples including those in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto. One tree, the Jomon cedar, is 16 feet at its base and reputed to be at least 2,600 years old. Hikers and ecotourists frequent the small island to see its forests and other flora.
Back in the 1990s, Nagafuchi found a significant increase in the number of dead pine trees after examining satellite images of Yakushima. The pines belong to an endangered species that is found only on the island and one neighboring it. He had earlier found and analyzed blackened snow from Yakushima’s mountains and discovered that this contained byproducts from burning coal such as aluminum and silicon. After studying maps of winds, Nagafuchi theorized that polluted air from across the East China Sea, from China, as the source. He continued his research, setting up small monitoring instruments to measure amounts of ozone and sulfur emissions, which typically come from coal or car exhaust.
For years, Nagafuchi’s concerns about the adverse effects of China’s air pollution on Japan’s primeval forests were discounted by forestry officials and even his fellow scientists, the New York Times observes. Along with an islander, Kenshi Tetsuka, who had formed a group to protect the pines, Nagafuchi continued his research. It was not until the 2000′s that the national government’s Forestry Agency started to take him seriously.
The Japanese government’s official position is that the pines are dying off due to an insect infestation and also from a growing population of deer, who can strip small trees of their needles. Given a long history of tense relations, it goes without saying that for Japan even to suggest that China — a country whose rapid industralization has been widely, if warily, remarked upon — could be the source of environmental damage in a formerly pristine region is a politically sensitive issue.
In western Japan, officials have issued warnings about the air containing high levels of particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers or less, known as PM 2.5. Such particles are small enough to become trapped in human lungs and have been routinely found to be dangerously high in China’s cities including in Beijing. Indeed, in just the first three months of this year, a Chinese news organization reported that nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter that is between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter, called PM 10, had both increased by almost 30 percent in Beijing.
Nagafuchi continues his monitoring of the pines, cedars and nature in Yakashima. Residents have expressed a feeling of hopelessness, sensing that even if the Japanese government believes Nagafuchi, there is little it can do. Isn’t it time for governments around the world to not only urge but demand that China address the environmental damage it is causing within and beyond its own borders?
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