Blue Skies – an Olympic Smoke-screen

smoggy skiesThe most common conversation I’ve run into over the past week: What’s with the amazing weather?

Although Beijing has been having one of the most polluted summers in years, on August eighth, a perhaps-not-so-coincidental year to the day before the Olympics, the sky went bright blue and has stayed that way ever since. So far, the Beijing Weather Manipulation Office has no comment, so I’ve been trying to think through the many variables and I can’t figure out an answer.

Beijing announced that they will force half the cars of the road between the seventeenth and twentieth of this month, alternating driving restrictions between license plates with odd and even numbers – indicating that this weekend will be even bluer, but not explaining the previous week. Beijing also moved several large polluting factories out of the region. However, these factories closed up months ago and the city has remained polluted. So again, this doesn’t explain the weather change. In terms of weather modification (i.e. controlling the rain), there has been regular rain in the middle of the night over the past week, said to clear out dust and smog. Once again however, this is just business as usual in Beijing; the weather modification office makes it rain quite often during the summers, but they don’t achieve day after day of perfect weather in the aftermath, as has been the case.

This leaves another theory that I’ve heard tossed around – forcing farmers not to burn their crops. In northern China, slash-and-burn farming is still a quite common practice and is responsible for blowing thick smoke hundreds of miles east over Beijing’s skies. I have been told that this is done frequently during the summers. Perhaps the government stopped allowing farmers to burn their crops during the test events this month? If this is the case, I haven’t heard any confirmation in any media outlet, but it would be an interesting piece of news in that it would require the cooperation of thousands of farms and impressive regulatory control on the local level.

Perhaps the good weather is coincidental. But if the government is able to make the sky blue – as it claims it will next year – it begs the question: why are they only making blue skies an Olympic priority? I have personally heard several people say “if the weather in Beijing was like this, I wouldn’t go back to the States after the Olympics.” For a city hoping to attract top talent, establish itself as a world class city, and avoid a recession in ’09, blue skies will be an important long term goal. For the Beijing government, rather than approach air pollution as a potential Olympic embarrassment, they should approach it as the city’s greatest weakness and one which needs to be solved. After all, the Olympics is only 17 days long.

5 Responses to “Blue Skies – an Olympic Smoke-screen”

  1. In Chicago we have the St. Patrick’s day parade every March, and every March we Chicagoans dye the river green. Now its not the same situation but it just reminded me that a columnist in the Tribune quipped something along the lines of “if we can make it green for St. Patty’s, why not go all out and dye it blue the rest of the year.” humorous, mostly, but the idea is tune with the idea of, if you can make it better, why not go ahead and do it? I sure hope that this gets worked out. Marginalizing pollution concentrations would be one of the greatest bragging rights Beijing would have for years to come.

  2. It can’t feasibly happen unless there is a major shift in policy for the entire country, because it’s not just Beijing. Many of of greater China’s cities are horrible polluters, and I’m sure a noticeable percentage of that pollution makes it’s way to Beijing. We already know that a good deal of LOS ANGELES’ air pollution particles come from China. However, Call it a hunch, but I’m still a believer that China can clean it up for the Olympics. I’m just not sure if I want to stick around to see what happens afterwards. After the Olympics the Deluge..

  3. Here is an article from the AP about the air during the car restriction days and why it was still smoggy.

    BEIJING (AP)–A test run of traffic controls to clear Beijing’s smoggy skies for next year’s Olympic Games has successfully improved air quality, state media reported Tuesday, saying that conditions were “fairly good” despite a constant gray haze.

    Air pollution has emerged as a key problem for Beijing as it gears up for the Olympics.

    International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge warned during a visit earlier this month that some Olympic competitions might be postponed if the city did not clean up the pollution.

    China’s official Xinhua News Agency said air quality was “fairly good” during the four-day trial that ended Monday. The state-run Beijing Daily said the traffic control test “brought Beijing four days of precious blue skies.”

    The traffic ban removed 1.3 million private vehicles from Beijing’s perpetually gridlocked streets each day. Additional buses and subways were added as residents turned to public transport, car pools and taxis to commute.

    Cars with even-numbered license plates were ordered off roads Friday and Sunday, and vehicles with odd-numbered plates were banned Saturday and Monday. Emergency vehicles, taxis, buses and other public-service vehicles were exempt.

    Environmental officials said air quality improved even though Beijing seemed to be polluted as normal, with an unmoving gray haze shrouding the Chinese capital. The pollution normally rises thousands of meters above the city – leaving a distinct gray layer that can be seen from flights descending in Beijing.

    The city had an air pollution index of between 93 and 95 during the test days, the environmental protection bureau said on its Web site. By Tuesday morning, the index had climbed to between 90 and 120.

    The air quality did not seem be visibly better because high humidity trapped the pollution and there were no strong winds to blow it away, the environmental bureau said.

    However, “It should be affirmed that the ban of vehicles has improved the city’s air quality,” Zhao Yue, a senior engineer with the Beijing Environment Protection Monitoring Center, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

    The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau referred questions to its Web site and did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment. Telephones at the Beijing Olympics organizing committee rang unanswered.

    Traffic controls are just one way Beijing Olympic organizers have tried to clear the skies. Officials have spent billions of dollars closing factories and moving others out of town. Frenzied, round-the-clock construction to modernize the capital will be curtailed ahead of the games next summer.

    Beijing is particularly focused on combating particle pollution, which can cause breathing problems and reduced visibility. That pollution is caused by emissions from power plants, diesel engines and wind-blown dust. High ozone levels, which occur on sunny days when nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons emitted by car tailpipes, power plants and factories react in the air, are also a problem.


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