Air Pollution Has Shut Down a Major Chinese City

A lack of wind, corn burning for the harvest, and the onset of central heat fouled up Harbin's air so much that schools and offices had to close.  
Reuters

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 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.
 
Reuters
 
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 fog clouded visibility so much that it caused two pileups before the police closed off highways , shutting Heilongjiang Province airports as well. Meanwhile, patients with breathing problems mobbed Harbin hospitals, driving admissions up 30 percent, says Sinosphere.
 
Reuters
 
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 in Siberia, temperatures are already near freezing. And it’s only October. By January, they’ll drop to between 10°F to -11°F, though extreme lows of -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 percent 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. 

Gwynn Guilford is a reporter and editor for Quartz.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

More in China

Just In