Going to Launceston? Just don’t breathe too deep
CAUGHT BETWEEN rapacious extractive industry on one hand and the sublime beauty of nature on the other, Tasmania remains a paradox in the Australian political landscape. Now, there’s something else to add to the offshore contradiction that is this southern island state—Launceston’s air.
Launceston is a small city of around 70,000 that spills north and south beyond the banks of the Tamar River, a wide, sluggish, grey stream where it flows by the city. Despite this description, it is something of a grand river that the city probably doesn’t take full advantage of when it comes to tourism – say, as Brisbane does.
It is one of those towns where you can live comfortably providing you know people who will introduce you to their social networks. Once an industrial city, the days of the woollen mills are long gone and, for decades now, Launceston has existed in a kind of economic limbo, bouyed by summer tourism and the activities of its inhabitants. It’s a small city, pleasant in the way that such low-key places are, down there on the edge of the known world. Far across Bass Strait and, for most Australians, far from their awareness, it is as a friend on mine once said as the aircraft touched down on Launceston airpstrip – “Oh, it’s like Armidale”.
Hills? No, health hazard
Yet, it’s the hills that make Launceston different to Armidale. To the east they rise in rounded ridges and, if the air is clear and your vantage point high enough, you just might see the high, jagged crags of Ben Lomond over on the horizon. Immediately westward of the city are the steep slopes of West Launceston, once the site of apple and pear orchards, now the site of housing all the way to their top. And it’s those hills, with their olive green forests and craggy outcrops, that form a heath hazard for the residents of this place. Health hazard? Yes. In winter.
What happens is this. The layer of air at ground level over the city heats during the day, warmed by the city’s activity and from heat radiation coming off the sun-warmed ground (yes, you skeptical cynics reading this, Launceston does get sun, and all year round). As winter’s cold, denser air settles over the city it traps that warm air below, effectively sealing it in. This is known to meteorologists as a temperature inversion, much the same thing that happens in Sydney where it occasionally creates that brown haze of polluted air.
The difference to Sydney, however, is the popularity of wood heaters and fireplaces that Launceston’s inhabitants light up in an attempt to keep warm. The emissions from these rise into that layer of warm, lower air – and stay there while the colder air cap persists. Thus, Launceston, a modest, small city, has a big air pollution problem and, sometimes, some of the dirtiest air you could breathe anywhere in the country.
It has become so bad these past few days that the government has warned residents not to do strenuous exercise outside lest they breathe in too much of the stuff. In the worst recorded air quality levels since 2007, contamination reached 100 micrograms of small particles per cubic metre when the normal Launceston winter daytime average is around 25 micrograms. According to the Bureau of Meterology, a mix of low temperature with little wind allows particles from wood heaters to settle in the Tamar Valley and create a smog layer.
Wood – warming, sure… but not so healthy
This raises the wisdom of burning wood to stay warm. Well-ventilated locales might not be bothered by this, but large cities can be. The use of fireplaces and wood combustion stoves in Sydney is very much discouraged by the state government and those that are on sale – and they are hard to find – must comply with emission standards.
This raises the need for technological solutions to better ways to burn wood. Wood, after all, is a natural, renewable resource the supply of which could be made sustainable were plantations of appropriate timbers established. Then, a small industry, with the employment it could create, might be established and persist well into the future.
There already are slow combustion stoves reputed to be low-emission-producing, however if Launceston is to reduce its problem of bad air in winter (and the attendant health costs around respiratory disorders) then the replacement of open fireplaces and inefficient wood burning stoves with newer, efficient types may need state government intervention. A subsidy, perhaps – replace your old, inefficient heater with a new, clean and efficient model and get cash in hand for doing so. It’s really no different than mainland (that’s what Tasmanians call Australia) government subsidising the installation of solar water heaters, rainwater tanks and photovoltaic panels on roofs.
Of course, removing inefficient models from the market place would have to be a part of this program, as would a rating system to provide buyers with information about performance, much like you find on energy rating labels for refrigerators and water efficiency labels for washing machines.
People often criticise technical solutions to problems, but in the case of Launceston’s air, technical fixes are just what is needed.