Biological and Environmental Research - Earth and Environmental System Sciences
Earth and Environmental System Modeling
23 July 2015

Air Pollution Amplified Extreme Weather, Floods in China

Impacts of 2013 Sichuan Flood
Illustration of the mechanism the researchers call “aerosol-enhanced conditional instability.” In this scenario, polluted air, especially when containing strong, heat-absorbing particles, suppresses daytime rainfall in the valley. The warm, moisture-laden air is pushed up the mountainside where it cools and dumps rainfall during nighttime. The research finds that reducing local pollution would substantially reduce downwind floods, like the 2013 Sichuan flood event.

Following the trail of the 2013 Sichuan flood in southwest China, researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and their collaborators found that heavy human-caused air pollution over the Sichuan Basin just upwind contributed to the catastrophic flood. Through a series of events they call “aerosol-enhanced conditional instability,” tiny particles from heavy air pollution absorb heat from the sun, stabilize the atmosphere, and suppress local storms during the daytime. However, this allows the heavy moist and now warm air to be transported downwind to mountainous areas where it is lifted causing extreme nighttime precipitation. The research was published in Geophysical Research Letters and highlighted by Science and Nature.

“We found a mechanism that could escalate a normal storm event to a severe weather event, particularly in downwind mountainous areas where storms can be triggered by the topography,” said Jiwen Fan, lead author of the study.


Led by PNNL, the researchers carried out model simulations of the catastrophic flood event and associated sensitivity simulations. They conducted ensemble simulations at a convection-permitting scale (3 km) using the improved chemistry version of the Weather Research and Forecasting Model (WRF-Chem), a regional-scale model.


Heavy air pollution has increased rapidly in regions such as China and India, where economic growth and urban populations are booming. Researchers have observed increases in the frequency and intensity of regional floods and droughts over the past few decades. This study establishes a clear connection between severe air pollution and extreme weather events. While this finding covers Southeast China, the mechanism that triggers the extreme weather events would apply to other regions in developing countries with similar topography and pollution levels. Even though the flood was the worst in 50 years in Sichuan, the weather forecast missed it, potentially because the pollution effect discovered in this study is not included in weather forecast models. The significance of human-caused pollution emissions to modify weather and climate is the important finding of this study. Understanding that reducing pollution locally in the Sichuan Basin would substantially alleviate downwind floods has important socioeconomic implications and is especially useful for policy-makers.

Jiwen Fan

This study was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science Biological and Environmental Research as part of the Regional and Global Climate Modeling program (RGCM), and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology.