Reaching for Cleaner Skies in Hong Kong

By Gayle Hagler

Skyline of Hong Kong on a bright day

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a city of contrasts.  As a civil engineer I find Hong Kong to be a stunning city—efficient and affordable subways navigate from one island to another, skyscrapers perched on mountainous terrain survive typhoon-force winds, and elevated walkways over busy roads make it a very pedestrian-friendly city.

However, this beautiful and advanced city is frequently masked by heavy smog that results from both local pollution sources as well as pollution transported into the city from outside regions.   Facing rising vehicle ownership and energy use, Hong Kong and its neighbors in the Pearl River Delta face an enormous challenge to improve their local air quality.

I recently spent a month in Hong Kong as part of the Department of State’s Embassy Science Fellows program.  My assignment was with the United States Consulate of Hong Kong and Macau, who requested an air quality research fellow to provide technical expertise on local air quality issues.

With a 13-hour jet lag to overcome, my brainpower may have been somewhat weak for the first few days, but many cups of Chinese tea kept me going!  During my stay, I provided technical presentations at local universities, nonprofits, and at the consulate.  I met with the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department, gave educational outreach lessons at several middle and high schools, and even had a few minutes of time on the local radio.

Encouraging students to take an interest in their region’s air quality issues was probably one of the most rewarding parts of my assignment.  Standing in front of a class of high school students in Hong Kong, I displayed a map of the Pearl River Delta region. The map showed the heavily populated southern area of China that includes major cities such as Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen with an urban population the size of California and Florida combined. I asked the students, “If I could give you equipment to measure air pollution at seven different locations in the Pearl River Delta, where would you put the monitoring equipment?” The students gathered in teams, going through a mock research study that included everything from developing research questions to deciding whether or not to buy steel-toed shoes as part of their safety equipment.  At the end, I showed them the seven locations, selected by a team of Chinese and American scientists, where I helped install the monitoring equipment and analyze the data many years ago as part of my graduate studies in environmental engineering.

The mock research experience seemed to strike a chord with the students, who were surprised to discover that studying air quality involves a wide variety of academic disciplines—ranging from engineering to public communications—and a good deal of teamwork.

At a recent gathering of experts throughout China as well as international air research colleagues, one of the presenters, Dr. John Watson of Desert Research Institute, noted that “cleaning the atmosphere is like home improvement projects, there is no such thing as a small job.”  But through international collaboration and sharing of knowledge, we all may benefit from advancing air quality science and reaching for cleaner skies.

About the Author:
Dr. Gayle Hagler is an environmental engineer researching air pollution in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, National Risk Management Research Laboratory and is located in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.  She recently spent part of the fall of 2013 as an Embassy Science Fellow working at the U.S. Consulate of Hong Kong and Macau.

Editor’s Note: The Embassy Science Fellows is a partnership between U.S. federal technical agencies and the Department of State to provide scientific and engineering staff to serve in short-term assignments in U.S. posts abroad. The goal of the program is to provide expertise in science, mathematics, and engineering to support the work of embassies, consulates, and missions of the State Department while providing international experience to EPA staff.