You are Kōsa: Thinking with the Yellow Sand. 

21. Juni 2024

Dear reader, this blog post is constituted of four different sections. Each section is like a movie or a documentary’s scene. Each scene takes place in a different time and place. I hope you can follow me through time and space travels. 

Scene no. 1: May 2023, Japan. A poetic recall of Kōsa, a poem by the author. 

You are part of something bigger called Kōsa. 

You are not one. You are part of a solid-liquid aggregate movement. 

You emerged as sand in the Gobi desert. 

It’s 2023; Northern China is heavily deforested. 

The wind blows, you easily move south. 

You mix, reassemble, and disassemble everything you encounter. 

Coal is burning in China; you aggregate with mercury and cadmium. 

You surpass the countryside, fields, stock farms, and cities. 

You articulate with pesticides, antibiotics, plastic and hormone-mimicking phthalates. 

You meet and ferry bacteria and viruses. 

You reach Korea; it’s spring. 

You intersect sensors which alarm meteorologists and the Korean government. Everybody is prohibited from outdoor activities. 

Parts of you are deposited on air purifiers at the entrance of Korean homes. 

You reach Kyushu’s coast. 

A fisherman on the coast of Fukuoka looks at the sea and says: “It’s China’s fault if I can’t see the horizon today”. 

Your concentration of ultra-fine dust now exceeds 800 ㎛/㎥. 

Some of your components reach the lungs of a Japanese woman living in Fukuoka. 

She coughs. 

You travel deep into her lung alveoli. 

Your ultrafine components travel through her blood and reach her pregnant uterus. 

You intimately become human. 

You exist and resonate in the time of a breath, in the deep time of sand formation. 

You exist and move in the microscopic space of a bronchus and through thousands of kilometers.  

Scene no. 2: April 2023, Japan. An extract from the fieldnotes. 

“I have experienced Kōsa, more or less, from the 9th to the 20th of April 2023 in Fukuoka, Japan. Suddenly, the air was thick and it became difficult to breathe. A friend told me it was hard to smoke a cigarette. He didn’t finish it. I started sneezing, and my nose was running frequently. My eyes itched and burnt when I was outside. After having read so much about the amount of shit this sand carries, I was quite scared to go out, but as soon as I went out, people seemed to be carrying on with their lives as usual. The city never issued any public preventive measures against the health hazards. A firework event, with 10,000 participants, was held anyway.  

The Fukuoka Meteorological Service reported the Kōsa situation, but the comments were mainly about cars or hanging laundry getting dirty.  

On the first day of Kōsa, the weather mascot Tentama Kun, a big light blue plushy being, wears a mask and invites people to do so as well. My neighbors told me they felt Kōsa, too, and that I could wear a mask if I was concerned. I asked my informant, a climatology professor based in Fukuoka, if he was worried about the health effects of the Kōsa, and he said, ‘I ended up getting used to it (慣れっちゃってる).’ My neighbors tell me that, in their opinion, it is a recent phenomenon; they didn’t hear much about it when they were young. I try to look for news online and reports about the effects on health. I find some blog pages run by women for women, who advise a face cream that blocks ‘PM 2.5’, like sunscreen but for Kōsa and pollution. A pediatrician also recommends that mothers should be cautious and explain the risks of infant cancer.”  

Scene no. 3: June 2022, Berlin, CRC office. Reflections on a workshop.  

I have just been hired by the Collaborative Research Center 1265, “Re-Figuration of Spaces”. In the project’s first phase, before I was hired, many researchers, guided by the German sociologist Martina Löw, developed four spatial figures useful for analyzing and classifying spatial phenomena. Space, place, route, and network represent abstract types of spatial arrangements or relationships between objects and entities. Spatial figures also have a performative function, ordering space in specific ways. 

I find myself with my colleagues in Berlin in one of the Technical University’s rooms. In front of me, I have some visual materials gathered by my colleague Indrawan and me.  

The workshop was organized by sociologist Silke Steets and anthropologist Ignacio Farias, who collaborated with Nikolaus Gansterer, a visual artist whose work explores figures of thought and life through drawing and performance. The workshop was one among 16, each held with one of the subprojects of the CRC. Each workshop became a device to search for spatial figures in the ethnographic and speculative stories told by the participants as they spoke about larger societal transformations  they observed in their research. 

Indrawan and I have brought climatological maps and graphics with temperature measurements. These materials are difficult to relate to. Additionally, the weather hazards we are looking at, such as heat or pollution, are somehow hidden in the air and are hard to visualize.  

Silke asks me, “What if you were an aerosol?”  

“An aerosol?” I reply. None of us really knows what an aerosol is.  

We start speculating, and I go home with this task. Think as an aerosol.  

Scene no.4: October 2023, Berlin. Reflections from my office, or reflections in the air. 

In contrast to sand, a scarce resource for cement, yellow sand is a hazardous transboundary phenomenon. Moreover, sand, although already granular and ambiguous in its more compact, visible, and touchable form, is even more elusive here. Is sand there or not? Where is it? Can I see it? Am I breathing sand? Is the air carrying sand, or is the sand trapped somewhere in the air?  

“The first record of the dust phenomenon in Korea is found in the reign of Silla Dynasty’s King Ahdalla (174 A.D.). It was called ‘Woo-To’. At that time, the people believed that the Gods in heaven became so angry that they lashed down dirt instead of rain or snow”,1 writes the Korean Meteorological Administration.  

Yellow sand, Asian dust, or Kōsa in Japanese, is a meteorological phenomenon that has intensified in the last decade. What we call Kōsa is a complex phenomenon linking different spaces and temporalities and bringing together different bodies and entities. Desertic sands travel seasonally from the Gobi Desert through China, Korea, and Japan. Nowadays, the sands entangle geologic time and space with current capitalistic devastations in toxic intimacies.  

Yellow sand is a hazardous phenomenon caused by overgrazing and expansion of arable land in mainland China’s Yellow River basin and inland deserts, which has spread rapidly in recent years. The contemporary Yellow Sand phenomenon is increasingly recognized as an environmental problem caused by human-induced climate impacts such as desertification, deforestation, and soil degradation. Recent studies have revealed that dust sand contains high levels of sulfates and nitrates, air pollutants emitted in industrial areas. In addition, dust collected from the surface soil contains fungi and other microorganisms which induce allergic reactions and airway inflammation2.  

The yellow sand is atmospheric.  

I take the term atmospheric from Marina Peterson’s last book, “Atmospheric Noise”. The atmospheric, although never fully defined by the author, is the affective character of another ephemeral and uncanny element, noise. The atmospheric comes into being “through the perception of noise”3 . Sensory capacities are not only reduced to human and nonhuman animals but, paraphrasing Peterson, walls, windows, and plants sense and contribute to crafting the atmospheric. The sensory, affective dimension of noise happens in the intra-action; to say it in the words of Karen Barad: “senses…do not distinguish between sense and that which is sensed. Therefore, the atmospheric matters in relationships and encounters, rather than in ‘ontological qualities of things’”4

Breathing yellow sand infringes the impermeability of bodies and matter, becoming spatially dense in every interstice, enveloping, permeating, and connecting matter and bodies. A body affected by the yellow sand becomes thickly entangled with air, ground, water, fungi, pollutants etc.  

The atmospheric character of the yellow sand can be further analyzed through Astrid Neimanis’ concept of weathering. Neimanis draws from Stacy Alaimo’s concept of transcorporeality, which conceptualizes relationships between bodies and the environment as intra-active material exchanges. Accordingly, weathering describes how human and nonhuman bodies are strongly implicated in climate change5. Weathering is a material-discursive practice and is the “intra-active process of a mutual becoming [through which] humans and climate change come to matter”6

The transcorporeality of weather is expressed in the “spatial overlap of bodies and the weathery nature”7. Therefore, the yellow sand, as weathering, sees bodies as “weather bodies” that are thick with climatic interactions and markers of climatic spatiality 8. The spatial dimension of the yellow sand is found in the spatial overlap or crash of bodies and atmospheric phenomena.  

The volumetric turn in Geography follows similar spatial lines: The two-dimensional space cannot do justice to how bodies are confronted with the ever-changing textures of spaces9. Indeed, as the two geographers Anna Jackman and Rachel Squire put it: “[L]ives and bodies are immersed within this context, ‘grating against’ Earth’s ‘textured materiality – choking on its dust,’ inhaling pollution particulates, wading through submerging waters, and baking in the sun”10 .Yellow sand is a geologic-atmospheric phenomenon, but it matters in a breath.  

Through my initial poem and the last paragraph, I have specified how yellow sand is a phenomenon that challenges the spatial and temporal categories we normally use to understand the world. I want to further question: How does sand’s materiality influence my ethnographic practices and outcomes? Or, in other terms, how can I ethnographically research something so elusive and atmospheric as yellow sand? How can I convey to my audience the volumetric collapse of time and space that sand performs when breathed in Fukuoka?  

I have started my contribution with a poem I wrote when I encountered Yellow Sand during my fieldwork in Japan. This poem is an ethnographic immediate reaction and provocation.  

Many anthropologists have already analyzed ethnographic poetry’s communicative power and epistemological shortcomings. What interests me here is what Haripriya Soibam11 noted: Poetry has potential in ethnography as it breaks free from the need to follow linear or chronological form. I want to elicit the need for different forms of writing to grasp the vortices of space and time that the Yellow Sand phenomenon presents to the ethnographer. A similar necessity addressed through poetry can be found in the “metropoèmes” and how they were used in ethnography12. Metro poems, invented by the French Oulipian poet Jacques Jouet, were, in fact, created ad hoc out of a methodological necessity: How to render the fast rhythm and time constraints of an ethnography inside the metropolitan train, its vortices, spaces, and rapid encounters. 

I would like to suggest here that I have a similar necessity.  

Global warming has often been described by Tim Morton’s influential concept of hyperobject13. It describes how climate change destabilizes objects and creates a collapse in the relationships between the world and the self, an event so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization. As an anthropogenic phenomenon and with its transboundary health effects, Yellow Sand challenges national borders and legislation. Yellow Sand, moving inside bodies and houses, elicits porosity of skin and architecture. Like other atmospheric phenomena, Yellow Sand calls for new ways of describing it. 

Poetry in a scientific article then works as a linguistic glitch in the clear prose, aiming at penetrating bodies with sensorial suggestions (see also Peterson 2021). 

In summary and conclusion, in my research, I am faced with the difficulties of mapping spaces of the Anthropocene. Faced with the granular, atmospheric, suspended, volatile, I need to attend, in Choy’s words, to the “problems and potentials presented by living as an element among others in the turbulences and volatilities of a ubiquitous air”14. I would like to strive for ethnographic writing that flickers as much as the hazardous haze, which challenges chronological constraints and can crash spatial continuity.  

Author Biography

Margherita Tess is a doctoral research associate of the CRC 1265 Re-Figuration of Spaces and is part of the “Urban Microclimate Planning Regime” subproject. Their PhD project is centered on unravelling the science behind heat adaptation in urban spaces and understanding its socio-political implications.


1 Korea Meteorological Admistration, Typhoon/ Asian Dust Introduction,instead%20of%20rain%20or%20snow. Accessed: May 2024 

2 Hashizume, M., Kim, Y., Ng, C.F.S., Chung, Y., Madaniyazi, L., Bell, M.L., Guo, Y.L., Kan, H., Honda, Y., Yi, S.M., Kim, H., & Nishiwaki, Y. (2020). Health Effects of Asian Dust: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Environ Health Perspect.

3 Peterson, M. (2021). Atmospheric noise. The indefinite urbanism of Los Angeles. Durham: Duke University Press. (p.8). 

4 Ibid. (p.9). 

5 Neimanis, A., Walker, R. L. (2014). Weathering : Climate Change and the “Thick Time” of Transcorporeality. Hypatia, 29, 558–575. 

6 Ibid. (p. 560).

7 Ibid. 

8 Neimanis, A., Hamilton, J.M. (2018). Open Space Weathering. Feminist Review, 118, 80–84. 

9 Billé, F. (2017): Introduction: Speaking volumes. Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights

10 Jackman, A., Squire, R. (2021). Forging volumetric methods. Area, 53, 492–500. DOI: 10.1111/area.12712.

11 Haripriya, S. (2019): Poetry and Ethnography: Tracing Family Resemblances. In: Society and Culture in South Asia 5(1): 126–146.

12 Maréchal, G., Linstead, S. (2010): Metropoems: Poetic Method and Ethnographic Experience. In: Qualitative Inquiry 1(16): 66–77. DOI: 10.1177/1077800409349757.

13 Morton, T. (2021): Hyperobjects. Philosophy and ecology after the end of the world. Reprint. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press (Posthumanities, 27).

14 Choy, T., Zee, J. (2015). Condition—Suspension. Cult. Anthropol, 30, 210–223. DOI: 10.14506/ca30.2.04.