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Haze likely from fires in Malaysia, Singapore

PSI PEAK: The view at Sengkang West at 8am yesterday. The 24-hour PSI reading hit 83 in central Singapore at 6am yesterday.


    Mar 31, 2016

    Haze likely from fires in Malaysia, Singapore

    AFTER months of clear skies and fresh air, air quality in Singapore deteriorated over the past two days, with a strong burning smell hanging over many areas.

    Although the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), a measure of air quality here, continued to hover in the moderate range, it reached a high of 83 in central Singapore at 6am yesterday.

    This is the highest 24-hour PSI reading registered this year.

    The culprit this time may not be Sumatra, Indonesia, where most of the haze-causing fires that affected Singapore in September and October last year were located.

    This time, the pollution is likely to have come from Peninsular Malaysia or Borneo, experts say.

    Winds blowing from the north-east and east could be bringing to Singapore the smoke haze from fires triggered by dry weather there.

    Local vegetation fires reported on Tuesday could also be a contributing factor, the National Environment Agency (NEA) said in a haze advisory yesterday.

    Associate Professor Koh Tieh Yong, a weather researcher from SIM University, said there was a spike in the number of hotspots in Peninsular Malaysia, particularly in Pahang, over the weekend.

    "In the late afternoon on Tuesday, moderate hazy conditions reached Singapore. The time lapse is consistent with our distance from the hotspot sources," he added.

    Chris Cheng, strategic development and research director at volunteer group PM.Haze (People's Movement to Stop Haze), who used to work at NEA, suspects that the haze may have resulted from peat fires around an oil palm plantation in eastern Sedili Kechil in Johor, Malaysia.

    "We checked the wind direction, hotspot, peat and plantation data, but we need an image of a local fire, and on-the-ground investigations there to verify the data," he said.

    The current north-east monsoon season, when winds blow mainly from the north-east, is transitioning to the inter-monsoon season, when winds are more variable.

    Over the past few days, they have been blowing from the north-east and east, said Erik Velasco, a research scientist from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.

    He added: "It is probable that winds blowing from the east brought plumes from fires in Borneo to Singapore on Tuesday afternoon."

    He added that while only a small number of fires were reported there over the past week, cloudy conditions may be preventing satellites from picking up more hotspots.

    Experts say fires in Malaysia are usually controlled better and faster than in Indonesia, and fires originating in Malaysia may not affect Singapore greatly.

    But when the usual haze season rolls in around June, there is still "significant risk" that Singapore will be badly hit by intense haze.

    Dr Velasco said: "We are still experiencing the effects of a Monster El Nino that started last year. In the region, El Nino enhances dryness, and therefore fires.

    "Because of the magnitude of El Nino this year, we must be prepared for a new period of intense haze similar to last year once the winds start blowing from the south and south-west, bringing plumes from Sumatra and Kalimantan."

    For today, however, the NEA says the air quality is expected to stay in the moderate range, and normal activities can be carried out.