Reply to ASK-AN-EARTH-SCIENTIST

Subject: Air Quality in Hawaii

Does Hawaii have the least polluted air in the nation (since it is surrounded by water and the wind carries the pollution away)?

    Hawaii has very clean air in general. Whether it is the "least" polluted is very hard to say, as certain parts of Alaska and the mainland are also blessed with very clean air. It is true that our abundant wind and rain, plus our relatively low population (even on Oahu, our population density is not considered "high" for the most part) help keep our air clean. Also important is our lack of heavy industry, which dumps lots of pollutants into the atmosphere in some parts of the nation. We do have a large automobile density, however, and this contributes to photochemical smog in Honolulu that is noticeable on low wind days. Also, two natural processes (volcanic activity at Kilauea and the formation of marine aerosols by wind action on the sea surface) helps give us a relatively high sulfate and general aerosol levels in our air, particularly during Kona weather times (when winds blow from the south). These two things are considered pollutants and a health risk.
    In general, our air (and water) are very clean for the reasons you mentioned. We can't do anything about Pele's activity on the Big Island or the wind blowing over the sea but there are steps that we as a society in Hawaii could take to make our air even cleaner. These include limited use of oil burning for electricity generation by finding alternative sources of energy and installation of emission control devices on our automobiles.

Dr. Ken Rubin, Assistant Professor
Department of Geology and Geophysics
University of Hawaii, Honolulu HI 96822


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