Every year during the dry season West Peninsular Malaysia is covered with a blanket of smoke which the press strangely calls haze. This affects air traffic especially the smaller aircraft which do not have sophisticated navigation equipment. However the worst effect of the smoke is on health with many asthmatic and other lung ailment sufferers heading to hospitals for treatment. The smoke gets worse if no rain occurs.
SMOKE ENGULFS KL'S GOLDEN TRIANGLE
What is the cause of the smoke?
Sometimes it is the palm oil mills within the country itself that burn palm oil husk as fuel to sterilize the fresh fruit bunches in the process of manufacturing crude palm oil. Having flown over many parts of the country at a few thousand feet above the ground, I have witnessed extensive pollution of the air from these mills especially on flights between KL and Melaka and between KL and Ipoh. In Melaka especially, the airport can hardly be seen when one is just 5 miles away. It gets pretty dangerous as there are many aircraft from the flying training school flying around the airport and we can hardly see them. The smoke can be clearly seen streaming out of the mill chimney and spread around by the wind covering an area of perhaps 60 square miles.
A PALM OIL MILL IN OPERATION
The other source of the smoke is from Sumatra in Indonesia where forest is burned to cultivate oil palm. As palm oil is a major export for both Malaysia and Indonesia, much of the agricultural land is planted with oil palm. On satellite images, the "hotspots" where open burning occurs can clearly be pinpointed.
HOTSPOTS ON 14 AUGUST 2012
Courtesy of NOAA and Malaysian Meteorological Department
Yet another important source of the smoke is peat soil burning where the burning may occur deep underground after being ignited on the surface. Swamps generate peat which is used as fuel in many countries because it has high carbon content.
In one of my flights to Pekanbaru in Sumatra, I experienced thick smoke all the way. It was difficult for me to discern if the smoke came from deliberate burning of land for cultivation or accidental burning of peat land.
DUMAI AIRPORT EN ROUTE TO PEKANBARU
SEARCHING FOR PEKANBARU AIRPORT
AIRPORT VISIBLE IN THE SMOKE
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