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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Yellow Means Caution

If this is your first spring time in Korea, you might be wondering what all the yellow powder is all over everything. In my first year here I thought it was pollen, which can coat things in my native Texas in the spring. Those of who have seen it before know it and have come to dread the yellow dust, or “hwang sa.” Every morning this past week I’ve dusted our car. Normally bright white, it’s looked pale yellow, heavily laden with the crud.

heavy dust in China obscures the landscape

heavy dust in China obscures the landscape

The hwang sa in Korea originates in Mongolia in the Gobi desert. Sand becomes airborne and makes it way eastward. The longer and faster it travels the smaller the particles become. Since we’re here on the eastern most tip of the continent, we get the smallest – and most dangerous kind of sands. Larger particles get trapped in nasal passages and caught up in mucous membranes as they should. The smaller particles can enter the lungs and cause sore throats, heavy coughing and even more serious issues such as asthma even in healthy individuals.

The desert regions causing this problem were worsened by the agricultural policies during the Mao era in China, causing additional desertification. Reforestation efforts have been costly and largely ineffective. Korean has spent large amounts of their own money to help China since we are affected heavily. That too, has been inneffectual.

Seoul skyline in a particulary thick dust storm in 2006

Seoul skyline in a rare winter storm of yellow dust mixed with snow in 2006

So far this year, we’ve had only a few bad days. You may not have noticed it, but recently a dust chart was linked from the front page of Ulsan Online. While it’s reasonably low as I write this, just last week the levels reached the caution stage at close to 300 µm/M² (micrometers per square meter). According to the Korean Meterological Association homepage, at the 400 stage,

  • Outdoor activities for the old, the young and those with respiratory diseases are prohibited.
  • Kindergarten and elementary school students are staying at home and are prohibited from outdoor activities.
  • Everybody is prohibited from heavy outdoor exercises.

At the 800 level

  • The old, the young, and those with respiratory diseases are prohibited from going outside.
  • Kindergarten and elementary school students are prohibited from outdoor activities and their classes should be dismissed
  • Everybody is prohibited from outdoor activities.
  • Outdoor sports event should be rescheduled.

During the spring, before venturing outside to play rugby, football, run, bike or hike it might be a good idea to check the dust levels.  Just looking out the window may not be enough. The following two pictures illustrates how the dust can sometimes appear to be just a gray cloudy, even misty day.

This photo was taken in the spring of 2007. I stay in most of the say thinking it was just mist. At 5pm I went out to buy groceries and nearly choked on the dust

This photo was taken in the spring of 2007. I thought it was just mist but when I went out to buy groceries I nearly choked on the dust

The same area with clean air. Notice the tip of Munsu mountain is visible behind the foothil

The same area with clean air. Even the tip of Munsu mountain is visible on the right shoulder of the foothill

When the dust gets bad, its best to do as the locals do – get and wear a mask, refrain from heavy outdoor activity or stay inside.

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