Hoping for Just Enough Rain
Thursday, July 31, 2008
BEIJING, July 30 -- There is an old Chinese saying that when noble guests visit, the streets must be sprinkled with clean water.
But try telling that to the Beijingers transfixed by weather forecasts for Aug. 8, the date of the opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The possibility that rain might dampen the planned fireworks-filled extravaganza seems to them too awful to contemplate.
Even worse, though, would be no rain. Without water and wind to whisk it away, the pollution-packed air of this city of 17 million hangs like a gray shroud, dulling the shine on its new sports stadiums and zapping the zing of millions of newly planted flowers.
So getting the rain just right is becoming an obsession, prompting the Chinese news media to devote as much space to weather predictions as to the utterances of President Hu Jintao.
There's now an entire newspaper on the topic. Olympic Weather News launched Monday. The China Meteorological Administration is distributing 80,000 copies of the free bilingual daily at airports, hotels and other public places in Beijing.
Meanwhile, four weather satellites have been positioned to transmit data during the Games. Forecast updates in Chinese and English will be offered every hour.
It's easy to understand why the Chinese are nervous. The weather has not been kind to the country this year. A monster snowstorm in February and, later, massive floods, paralyzed large areas of southern and central China. In May, a devastating earthquake in southwestern China's Sichuan province killed nearly 70,000 people.
Starting in June and running through mid-July, an intense bout of worry set in that rain could mar the Olympics. Although people expected showers because June marks the beginning of the rainy season here, this year the rains were heavier, the temperatures lower and the thunderstorms stronger than normal. According to statistics from Beijing's meteorological bureau, the average rainfall was 55 percent higher than normal.
Seeking to brighten the mood, China Daily, the state-run English-language newspaper, ran a hopeful headline July 16: "Opening ceremony could be rain-free." The story was above-the-fold news because the chance of showers during the show had dropped since the previous story -- from close to 50 percent down to 41 percent.
The new analysis was based on more precise data, taken from an observatory close to the "Bird's Nest," the just-completed National Stadium where more than 80 heads of state will be among the 75,000 people expected to witness the opening ceremony.
Sunny days during those weeks were so rare that when brilliant sunshine broke out on a Saturday, that, too, was a big story. On July 13, the popular Beijing Youth Daily published a full page of photos of people enjoying the rays.
About two weeks ago, the rains stopped. The moist air became sticky and close. Imagine the movie "Body Heat," set not in Florida, but in a Beijing parking plaza amid a dozen idling buses. The sun was out there, but barely visible through the haze.