Southeast Asian Region Contends With Far-Reaching Psychological Effects of Wildfire Smoke 

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PM 2.5 pollution engulfing Bangkok (photo: Getty image)

Research conducted by the Spears School of Business, with colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) revealed that wildfire smoke in Southeast Asia significantly affects people’s moods, especially when occurring in neighboring countries.

The newly published study, led by Dr. Rui Du, an assistant professor of economics at the Spears School of Business, Oklahoma State University aimed to understand the impact of windblown smoke plumes on public sentiment as expressed on social media.

The team’s study, “Transboundary Vegetation Fire Smoke and Expressed Sentiment: Evidence from Twitter,” specifically looked at the 2019 Fires and Haze Crisis in Southeast Asia, (wildfires that year burned 1.6 million hectares, and caused economic losses of over USD 5 billion to the region) to understand the direct impacts of air pollution on the population’s sentiment.

To collect the data, the team launched a machine-trained, multi-lingual algorithm to study the shift in public sentiment throughout the year on X (formerly known as Twitter) from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The study involved 1,270,927 tweets from 378,300 users who agreed to have their locations made available. 

While the sampled posts didn’t explicitly mention wildfires or air pollution, the team found a notable sentiment drop in these posts as each region grappled with severe air pollution from the wildfires, Oklahoma State University News reports.

Research by Du and his team revealed that during peak fire seasons, daily exposure to typical wildfire smoke levels in the region produces an equivalent change in mood compared to the average Sunday-to-Monday sentiment drop, akin to the feeling of anxiousness and sadness people feel at the end of the weekend as the weekday approaches. 

“It has a substantial negative impact on people’s subjective well-being. This has a big effect,” Siqi Zheng, an MIT professor and co-author of the new paper, told MIT News.

The study also revealed that people living near international borders are more likely to feel displeased when affected by wildfire smoke that comes from a neighboring country. When similar conditions originate domestically, there is a more considerably muted reaction.

Furthermore, the report highlights the regional geopolitical tensions which arise from transboundary pollution. The global and regional implications of cross-border smoke pollution could give countries a shared incentive to cooperate further. 

Due to Southeast Asia’s various small countries being clustered together, the threat of transboundary pollution makes it an ongoing source of concern. Scientists warn of a rising number of wildfires globally, fueled by climate change conditions in which more wildfires could occur. 

“If they don’t work on this collaboratively, it could be damaging to everyone,” Zheng said.