It's coming on winter, and Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, is making its annual transformation into the second most air polluted city in the world. According to a comprehensive study on urban air quality conducted by the World Health Organization, Ulaanbaatar follows closely behind the world's most polluted city, Ahwaz, Iran.
Ulaanbaatar houses a third of the country's total population of 3.1 million people, and the habits of these overcrowded residents are seriously damaging the air. Over half the city's population lives in ger (yurt) districts that ring the nation's capital. These neighborhoods are notorious for their lack of public works, including electricity and sanitation. In the bitter winter months, the 800,000 residents in these ger districts have to burn coal to heat their homes.
The particles emitted from burned coal coupled with weather conditions that trap in pollution are the major causes of Ulaanbaatar's notorious air quality. According to a 2011 study, an estimated 10-25 percent of deaths in Ulaanbaatar in a given year are due to particles in the air. In addition to such health hazards, air pollution hits the national bottom line as well: The study says air pollution-related issues, such as illness, time taken off of work, and death, cost Ulaanbaatar about $500 million USD annually. This is a whopping 20 percent of Ulaanbaatar's 2008 GDP.
Although the general population complains of the city's air quality, many remain in the dark about how to affect real change. But Christa Hasenkopf, National Science Foundation Postdoctorate Fellow and winner of a Fulbright research grant to Mongolia, is trying to educate urbanites and to get Ulaanbaatar's youth to care about their city's air. She has started a project that posts daily air quality data provided by the City Air Quality Agency on social media for the first time in Mongolia.
"We think it is vital for citizens of one of the world's most polluted cities to have easy access to air quality information and given clear explanations of how to interpret it through social media," says Haskopf. "Providing this information empowers the public to play an important role in having a say in the future of the air quality and, ultimately, the health of their home."
To help the residents of Ulaanbaatar raise awareness of the importance of clean air, visit and share the work of UB Air Quality Info on Facebook and @UB_Air on Twitter. Taking part in or just showing public support of the dialogue can go a long way in maintaining air-cleaning efforts such as the World Bank's Ulaanbaatar Clean Air Project.
All photos are courtesy of Taylor Weidman/The Vanishing Cultures Project (c) 2012.
Postcards from the Second-Most Air Polluted City in the World
Follow Nina Wegner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@VC_Project
There’s no place on earth untouched by human activity: This was clear as Lucas Foglia whizzed across the vast, white expanse of Alaska's Juneau Ice Field last summer. He was riding an old pair of skis towed by scientist Uwe Hofmann, who periodically stopped his snowmobile to measure the rapidly melting glacier.
“It was an unforgettable experience,” says Foglia, a photographer featured in WIRED’s December issue. "Being in a place that big and wild made me feel small in a way I had never felt before, yet I knew that humans as a whole were changing that landscape.”
Foglia explores this tension in his stunning new book Human Nature. It features nearly 60 photographs that illustrate the varying ways nature impacts humans and humans impact nature—for better or worse. "It focuses on our relationship with nature, how we need wild places even if they have been shaped by us," Foglia says. "I think of each photo in the book as the tip of the iceberg that hopefully points viewers to the larger story underneath the surface of the image."
Foglia grew up on a farm in rural Long Island. Watching the surrounding fields slowly being swallowed up by housing tracts inspired his work documenting the natural environment—a focus that grew in intensity after Hurricane Sandy slammed into the eastern seaboard in 2012. “Climate change is on the news every day these days, but I realized I didn’t know what the science looked like.” he says. “I felt like photography could clearly describe the process of the science.”
Over the next five years, Foglia trailed scientists in five countries with his medium format digital camera as they took samples of air pollution, studied geysers, and launched ozone balloons into the atmosphere. He also examined governmental efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. The Singapore Green Plan, for instance, requires developers to include green spaces in new buildings, while the Agricultural Experiment Station in New York helps farmers develop crops that can withstand changing weather patterns (more on that here).
These programs matter not only because people need nature to survive. They also matter because people need nature to thrive. Foglia learned this while documenting the research of David Strayer, a University of Utah neuroscientist who hooks participants up to EEG caps and facial electrodes as they spend time in rugged landscapes. His research shows that unplugging in nature actually increases cognitive function, helping people better solve creative problems. "He said that, in his opinion, time in wild places is part of human nature," Foglia says.
Strayer's idea reverberates throughout Human Nature. It explains the feeling of wonder and freedom Foglia felt while gliding across a remote Alaskan ice field—and further underscores the need to preserve places like it.
Human Nature is out this month from Nazraeli Press.