Super Smog in China

Officials close schools and ground flights as dense smog shrinks visibility in Harbin, a city in China

Oct 21, 2013 | By Kelli Plasket with TIME and AP reporting
AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A woman wearing a face mask to block out the smog uses her mobile phone in Harbin, a city in northern China.

Winter is coming to northern China—and with it, another season of heavy smog. Smog is a hazy blend of smoke and fog caused by pollution in industrial areas. On Monday, in the large city of Harbin, small-particle pollution rose to a record 40 times higher than what is considered to be safe by the World Health Organization (WHO). The thick haze caused visibility to fall to less than half a football field, grinding the city to a halt.

A police officer works on a street blanketed in heavy smog in Harbin on October 21, 2013.
AFP/GETTY IMAGES
A police officer works on a street blanketed in heavy smog in Harbin on October 21, 2013.

When Wu Kai, a 33-year-old Harbin resident, looked out her apartment window on Monday, she couldn’t see anything. At first, she thought it was snowing. Then she realized it was smog. Her husband left for work wearing a mask to cover his mouth and nose and stop him from breathing in the pollution. His regular bus wasn’t running because of the low visibility. “It’s scary, too dangerous,” Kai told the Associated Press. “How could people drive or walk on such a day?”

Many people can’t get around. Authorities in the city closed primary and middle schools and some highways on Monday. Harbin’s Taiping International Airport canceled or delayed at least 40 flights.

Smog Season

Northern China experiences year-round air pollution from factory emissions and the huge number of vehicles on the road. Typically, the air pollution is at its worst in the winter, when more coal is burned to heat homes and buildings. Harbin’s municipal heating systems kicked in on Sunday. On Monday, visibility was down to less than 55 yards, according to state media.

China’s environmental protection agency monitors the level of harmful particles in the air. The agency saw readings as high as 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter at several monitoring stations in Harbin on Monday. WHO says a safe level is 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

Pollution Problems

China’s major cities have some of the world’s worst smog. Record levels of air pollution crippled Beijing, the capital, for weeks last winter. The Chinese government, which had long ignored the problem, is finally taking notice. In September, China’s Cabinet announced a plan that aims to reduce the country’s heavy reliance on coal to below 65 percent of total energy usage by 2017. Last week, Beijing also announced a set of color-coded emergency measures for bad pollution days.

Fixing the pollution program will be costly for the Chinese government. Officials say the country will need to spend nearly $817 billion to fight pollution.  But the cost of ignoring it could be much worse.