Unbelievable photos of how bad Beijing’s air has gotten

January 15, 2013

Chinese children are being forced to stay inside and there's been a spike in hospital visits as Beijing has clouded over with some of the worst smog in history. And now, we have an aerial representation of Beijing's respiratory problems, courtesy of NASA. Here's what the air above China looked like on Jan. 3:


NASA

And here it is on Jan. 14:


It doesn't sound pretty:

The top image shows extensive haze, low clouds and fog over the region. The brightest areas tend to be clouds or fog, which have a tinge of gray or yellow from the air pollution. Other cloud-free areas have a pall of gray and brown smog that mostly blots out the cities below.

 

At the time that the Jan. 14 image was taken, ground-based sensors at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reportedly found levels of the smallest, most dangerous types of particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, at 291 micrograms per cubic meter of air. According to World Health Organization guidelines, any air with more than 25 micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic meter is considered unsafe.

The PM 2.5 particles, which come from burning fossil fuels and biomass, are especially deadly because they can enter the passages of the lungs. Over time, they can worsen medical conditions such as asthma or heart disease.

The putrid air has caused an outcry on Weibo, China's Twitter, and even on state media. There also are reports that sales of air-monitoring smartphone apps have skyrocketed.

But immediate relief is unlikely, and air pollution issues of this scale take decades to alleviate.

"If there is any consolation to what Beijing had to endure," wrote the Economist's China blog, "It is that it should lend urgency to the public outcry, and help speed things in the right direction."

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Olga Khazan · January 15, 2013