Airpocalypse

China’s northeast hit by air pollution so bad “you can’t see your own fingers in front of you”

October 21, 2013
October 21, 2013

It’s getting colder in China, which means firing up the coal plants and turning the atmosphere into a toxic sauna.

And it’s not surprising that China’s first major “airpocalypse” of this winter season was in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, in China’s far northeast. Visibility in Harbin hit 10 meters (33 feet) today, as the city’s air quality index (AQI), which measures fine particulate matter (PM2.5) per cubic meter, exceeded 500—at least 20 times greater than levels the World Health Organization deems safe. And that was just in the “good” neighborhoods. In some areas, PM2.5 soared to 1,000. (For comparison, PM2.5 exceeded 900 during Beijing’s notorious airpocalypse last winter.) “You can’t see your own fingers in front of you,” Harbin’s official news site noted, reports Sinosphere, the New York Times’ new China blog.

That was severe enough to prompt local officials to close schools and warn Harbin’s 11 million residents to stay home. And that wasn’t just for their lungs. The noxious fug clouded visibility so much that it caused two pileups before the police closed off highways (link in Chinese), shutting Heilongjiang province airports as well. Meanwhile, patients with breathing problems mobbed Harbin hospitals, driving admissions up 30%, says Sinosphere.

What’s behind the gray-out? Officials blame lack of wind and the burning of corn for the harvest, but the fact that central heating kicked in on Sunday was also a “key factor,” said Xinhua. In Heilongjiang, which is pretty much Siberia, temperatures are already near freezing. And it’s only October. By January, they’ll drop to between -12°C and -24°C (10°F to -11°F), though extreme lows of -42°C (-44°F) aren’t unheard of.

Heating’s a big problem in China. As a study published in May 2013 showed, particulate matter in air north of the Huai River is 55% higher than in the south—and life expectancies 5.5 years shorter. During the 1990s alone, that cost 500 million residents of northern China 2.5 billion life years, said the researchers.

That’s probably due to two policies. First, in order to make the frozen north more hospitable, in 1950 the government determined that those who lived north of the Huai River and the Qinling mountain range could receive coal-powered heating for free. In addition, the hukou (household registration) policy, which makes it difficult for residents of one area to pick up and move to another, means many residents can’t flee to cleaner climes. The government no longer provides coal for free, though it does subsidize it. And though China’s switching from coal-powered heating to natural gas, that transition will be a slow one. Here’s a look at what to expect in the mean time:

Tap image to zoom
A woman wearing a mask checks her mobile phone during a smoggy day on the square in front of Harbin's landmark San Sophia church, in Heilongjiang province October 21, 2013. The second day of heavy smog with a PM 2.5 index has forced the closure of schools and highways, exceeding 500 micrograms per cubic meter on Monday morning in downtown Harbin, according to Xinhua News Agency. REUTERS/Stringer
A woman checks her phone in front of San Sophia church.(Reuters)
Tap image to zoom
People ride along a street on a smoggy day in Daqing, Heilongjiang province, October 21, 2013. The highest red alert was issued for heavy smog in several cities in Heilongjiang province on Monday, according to Xinhua News Agency. The second day of heavy smog with a PM 2.5 index has forced the closure of schools and highways, exceeding 500 micrograms per cubic meter on Monday morning in downtown Harbin, the provincial capital. REUTERS/Stringer
It wasn’t just Harbin that was hit. Bikers in nearby Daqinq city faced the “fog” as well.(Reuters)

And some more from Sina Weibo (link in Chinese, registration required):
harbin7

harbin6

harbin 5

harbin4

harbin3

Top News

Powered by WordPress.com VIP
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 23,746 other followers