Friday, May 11, 2007

The Haze: the Antithesis of What the Sunshine State Stands For

Just like that, it seems like I’m back in Malaysia. I’m referring to the haze that shrouds the entire length of the Sunshine State, turning it into the Sun-shorn state for the last couple of days, and the next few as well. And to complicate matter, the first tropical storm sat threateningly just offshore, even before the official beginning of the hurricane season on June 1.

First, the cool air that has descended on us, bringing cool relief, was making matter worse by a physical phenomenon called temperature inversion. We all know that hot air rises (enabling hot balloon rides) and cold air sinks, thus driving air circulation. That is an unstable atmospheric condition. But during a temperature inversion, the already cool air just sits at the bottom, i.e., closer to ground level, and the particulate matter in the air follows suit and stays hung in the air. One instance when stability is not the preferred state.

Then we were told that the weather system, Tropical System Andrea, now demoded to a sub-tropical system, is still strong enough to fuel wind that blows the burning ashes from the forest fires in the northern and eastern parts of the State (even South Georgia) our way. So the low visibility condition as seen below may yet last over the weekend.

Smoky skies return
Cars northbound on the Howard Frankland Bridge brake as traffic slows due to a heavy
pocket of smoke this morning.St. Petersburg Times photo: Sherman Zent

The unusually featureless sky outside our home with a pallid tone.
Gone is the normally bright natural lights at this evening time in spring.

However, my olfactory gland did not pick up any burnt smell. Perhaps living with the recurring haze problem in Malaysia in the last few years before we moved here has kind of “acclimatized/dulled” my sensory organs to be able to withstand the onslaught of a relatively harsh environment, unlike my colleagues who may not have had the “training”.

Here they are called forest fires, perhaps with the implicit understanding that it’s Nature’s way of replenishing its landscape. Back in Malaysia it’s called open burning, alluding to the anthropogenic origin of the resulting haze problem. It seems this is a traditional way of preparing for crop replanting, agriculture being the main source of livelihood for this part of the world. And the replanting season coincides with the Southwest monsoon that jettisons the elevated level of burst particles toward Malaysia and Singapore, which is compounded by illegal burning of refuse and felled trees in our own backyard.

My wife went for a sea outing yesterday (yes, without me) with her friends to show Venerable Hwei Chen’s Mom (read here for their visit to our home) around the Bay area (a timely gift for the impending Mother’s Day don’t you think?). And the tour took them on a boat cruise around the Tampa Bay to witness the dolphin in their natural habitat (stay tuned for another blog on their adventurism). And the view from the boat was not that much better.

The lone defiant tree seemingly breaking through the hanging smokescreen

The weather forecast calls for some rainfall during the weekend. Hopefully these precipitation events, which are most welcome both for the haze and the drought problems we are presently facing here, would occur at the right places to reinstate the sunshine that has momentarily been incarcerated behind the hazy envelope.

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