The Broadway Musical, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, was written and composed by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane in 1965. It was a remarkable success, but I doubt that they fully understood the depth of their title. Improving air quality not only makes you live longer and healthier, but also in a bigger world, much bigger – from your neighbourhood up to the universe. If you live in Northern Scandinavia, under the big sky of the Western US or higher up in the Alps of Europe, you may not need further explanation. Otherwise, let me explain.
I have lived most of my life in Finland, where the annual average of PM2.5 [fine particulate matter air pollution] across 32 urban monitoring stations is below 6 μg/m3. In Lombardia, Northern Italy, where my other home is, it ranges from 24 to 34 μg/m3, i.e. two time the US NAAQS level.
After a rainstorm or with Föhn-wind over the Alps the air in Lombardia may clear up and stay truly clean for up to 12 h, and on one such exceptional day (October 3. 2016) I took the photo above. What you see is the magnificent Monte Rosa [at a distance of 65 km] and its foothills. With 4634 m it is the biggest Alpine massif and the second highest mountain in Europe. Click then the Google Maps street view shot below to see the same view as in the photo above in another clear sunny day.
What Monte Rosa? In most of the cloudless days you actually do not even see its foothills, you could be in Iowa. The same is true in Torino [Turin]. On a rare clear day, from Basilica di Superga, a few hundred metres above the city level, I have once seen the Alpine range that surrounds the city from Southwest to Northeast. The closest ice capped peaks are only 25 km away. I have been in Torino a dozen times, however, and most of time have seen no glimpse of any mountains.
Imposing views blurred or completely blocked by air pollution for most of the time are in no way restricted to the Alps, Central Europe or to landscapes.
On a clear moonless night in rural Scandinavia and in the Western US we can see the Milky Way from horizon to horizon. Yet, most people in Europe – in the world – have never seen the Milky Way. The sky they see in a clear moonless night presents maybe a hundred stars, not the millions that have shined there for millions of years to be seen. When you try to describe what a humbling and mind blowing view the Milky Way is, they don’t know what you are talking about.
You may remember the comet Hale-Bop in 1997. I first saw it on a moonless autumn night sky in rural Finland and was astounded by its huge size and twin tails, one narrow and blue the other wider and white. It remains just about the most impressive sight in my memory. A week later I told about it to colleagues around a dinner table in Gallarate, Italia, next to the first Alpine foothills. They told me that they had read and heard about it but not seen it. How could that be possible!? I dragged them out, and … we saw a disappointing, barely identifiable stain in the sky. Nothing to stop and look up to or to wind up anyone’s imagination.
Back in the seventies when I was studying air pollution at UNC in Chapel Hill, Professor Arthur Stern sounded old and out of touch when he was talking about “visibility” as an air pollution issue. I have now grown old myself, and I see his point in a different perspective. Air pollution doesn’t only damage health and property, it also denies us the magnificence of the mountains and the Universe! It also narrows our minds by cancelling out the beauty, awe and wonder, and thereby the inspirations and images which have elevated the minds of philosophers, artists, scientists and ordinary people from everyday to eternity, from details to the whole.