By Rebecca Fowler
Poor air quality is a serious health risk for residents of urban and rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa. But a lack of monitoring has made it difficult to determine the extent of air pollution in the region and develop policies that protect human health.
Daniel Westervelt, an associate research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, received funding from the Center for Climate and Life in 2019 to address this data gap by setting up an air pollution-monitoring network for three megacities in sub-Saharan Africa: Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Kampala, Uganda; and Nairobi, Kenya. Westervelt’s project, a collaboration with the U.S. Department of State and several local universities, is now generating some of the first air quality data for these cities.
Q. What’s the focus of your research?
A. I work at the intersection of atmospheric chemistry, climate change, and air quality science. Some of my work involves using computer models to simulate the impact of air pollution on climate change and figure out how emissions of certain substances cause changes in things such as temperature and precipitation. Another main focus of my research is bridging the air pollution data gap in data-sparse areas, including countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This work involves going to those places and setting up air pollution monitors to measure and quantify the concentrations of air pollutants.
Q. How did you get interested in this topic?
A. The idea to measure air pollution in sub-Saharan Africa came from discussions I had with colleagues at the U.S. State Department. They were involved in setting up air pollution monitors in Beijing in 2008. Pollution was really bad in Beijing at this time and receiving a lot of publicity, in part because the Olympics were being held there. So the U.S. embassy in Beijing started collecting air quality data at their building and publishing it online. Over the past decade or so, that initiative spurred significant improvements in air quality in China.
My Climate and Life project came out of those talks and thinking about the power of having an open data set that the public can see and that could inspire them to act. This is especially important in places like Africa where there’s very little data and yet, as far as we can tell, a pretty severe air pollution problem.
Q. Tell me more about the problem you’re trying to address with your Climate and Life funding.
A. The project addresses the ongoing air pollution crisis in three very large sub-Saharan African cities. One of the cities I’m working in is Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s a city of about 11 million people — larger than New York City. Until recently, there were zero air pollution monitors in Kinshasa. So there’s a huge data gap and a lot of uncertainty about what kind of air people are breathing in the city. Until you actually have the data, you can’t quantify the problem and you can’t manage the problem. The only way to figure out solutions is to know what you’re dealing with.
Some initial estimates predict that the air pollution health burden in Africa is nearly 800,000 premature deaths per year. But again, it’s difficult to know the extent of the problem without having solid data. So that’s what I’m looking to address.
Q. What do you find most exciting about the project?
A. One exciting thing is seeing this new dataset in real-time in a place where it hasn’t really been measured before. It’s nice to be among the first ever to sort of quantify what’s happening in these places where, unfortunately for people’s health, air pollution is high and probably causing a lot of harm. Being able to see that in the data for the first time is very interesting.
For example, in Kinshasa, we’ve found that on average, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels there are about a factor of five greater than what’s considered to be the healthy standard. So these are severe levels of air pollution.
The potential to make this data available to the public is also exciting to me. Publishing and analyzing it has a lot of potential to make people more aware of the air pollution problem in their city and even feel inspired to act and try to alleviate it.
Q. How will this project advance understanding of the challenges posed by climate change?
A. How much climate changes is going to be a direct function of how much pollution we emit as humans. Getting a grasp on those numbers is really important. Emissions are usually one of the most uncertain aspects of models that we use to predict future climate change. So having the type of data I’m trying to collect could have significant benefits as far as making climate models more accurate, and substantially improve future projections of temperature, precipitation, and air quality and pollution levels as well.
Q. When it comes to finding solutions to climate change, what gives you hope?
A. Seeing the excitement and dedication of people around the world — in particular, the millions of people marching during the Climate Strike in September 2019. It was pretty inspiring to see that and it gives me a lot of hope. It’s an exciting time to be working on climate change issues and air pollution since there seems to be a lot of public engagement and activism around these issues.
Q. What’s a good source of information for people who want to learn more about climate change?
A. The NASA climate website is among the best for climate education. It provides great information, graphics, and visualizations. It’s meant for public consumption and it’s valuable in terms of educating and inspiring the public because NASA is a source that people trust.