Second-Hand Sunrise In Beijing Smog

Beijing broadcasts a sunrise on smoggy Thursday.
Winter brings darkness and poor air quality to Beijing again this year. A viewscreen in Tiananmen Square produces a synthetic sunrise (China Foto Press/Wang Jinghua).

On Thursday, a gray murk of smog displaced the dawn in Beijing. This time, China implemented an unusual and futuristic way for citizens to watch the sun come up. Video.

Mid-January heralds the beginning of what the Chinese have begun to think of as the smog season in the past couple of years. On Thursday, Beijing city government personnel looked at their pollution monitors. Early in the day, PM 2.5 pollution exceeded a density of 500 micrograms per cubic meter for the first time this season. (At 4 a.m., a monitoring post at the U.S. Embassy measured levels as dense as 671–about 25 times as high as the level the World Health Organization considers safe.) You could smell the difference. Visibility was down to less than a quarter-mile. Chinese officials issued a severe air warning for the day, ordering seniors and schoolchildren to stay indoors until the situation improved.

That’s why the giant digital television screens in the city, which normally show travel destinations, featured a panoramic view of sunrise for Beijing residents and commuters this week. It was the only way people were going to see the sun.

“I couldn’t see the tall buildings across the street this morning,” a traffic coordinator at a busy Beijing intersection told James Nye of the online Daily Mail. “I often cough, and my nose is always irritated. But what can you do? I drink more water to help my body discharge the toxins.”

Stagnant weather patterns in parts of China during the winter combine with the need to use more coal for heat and power because of the seasonal cold. Coal, used to provide 70% of China’s total primary energy in 2011, is a major emitter of soot.

Economic development over the past 30 years, rapid industrialization, and explosive growth in the numbers of cars have exacerbated already high pollution levels in the Chinese capital. The heavy smog can last for days at a time. It is dangerous enough for residents to wear industrial-strength face masks when they go out.

By midmorning Thursday, the 2.5 particulate level had only dropped to 350 to 500 micrograms, still within the World Health Organization’s definition of hazardous to human health, although the smog cleared more in the afternoon. Similar conditions have also plagued Shanghai, China’s commercial center, and other cities, especially in the northern part of Hebei province, home to the country’s biggest steel producer and heavily industrial. Harbin, in the colder northeast, recorded PM 2.5 rates up to 1,000 micrograms starting in October. The problem has even spread east to Nanjing and Hangzhou and south to Haikou, a provincial capital usually known for its tropical landscape.

On Wednesday, Shanghai legalized emergency measures such as shutting schools and ordering cars off the road on days with severe smog. Local governments and officials in China are also in for fines and administrative punishment if they do not implement strong pollution prevention measures.

Wang Anshun, Beijing’s mayor, announced on Thursday that the city would cut coal use by 2.6 million tons and set aside 15 billion yuan ($2.4 billion) to improve air quality this year. Preventive measures include eliminating coal-burning boilers in the built-up part of the city, banning high-polluting vehicles, cutting available car registrations, and promoting low-emissions or zero-emissions vehicles.

On Tiananmen Square, as well as showing electronic sunrises, LED screens urged people to take responsibility for their polluting activities: “Protecting atmospheric environment is everyone’s responsibility.” Zhang Dawei, director of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center, reported that last year the city saw 58 days of serious pollution, averaging more than one day per week. Americans partly have the environmental legislation of the mid-20th century to thank for problems of similar scale not occurring here.

Could the smog affect Chinese city-dwellers in more ways than the expected respiratory and circulatory distress? Seasonal affective disorder often accompanies the darkness of winter. In fact, short winter days and long nights pose people a documented greater risk for SAD, with women affected more than men. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that nearly 10% of Alaskans show some effects of the disorder, which can sometimes progress to major depression. Mountain-shaded, light-starved towns in Norway and Italy have solved their winter darkness problems by mirroring the bright sun from hilltops into darkened town centers.

Those wide-screen LEDs in China’s public places may not be such a bad idea.

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