TAIZHOU, China- As the weather continues to warm up a thick blanket of fog has engulfed many cities in the Eastern portion of Central China. The gray-yellow miasma began moving in over Jiangsu, Hunan, Hubei, and Anhui provinces around a week ago, and it is sometimes so thick that it is not possible to see the the tops of buildings from the ground or between building if looking out from a window. As I stand on the seventh floor of an apartment high-rise I cannot see the skyscrapers and other tower blocks that rise less than a kilometer away — and today is a good day. Sometimes the visibility is next to nothing, the view is so opaque that I cannot see the buildings across the street. At first, this cloud was called fog, but the cover has been so thick and persistent that it has become clear that we are not just experiencing a high accumulation of water vapor in the air:
It is pollution.
During the nights here in Taizhou (in Jiangsu province) I’ve also began noticing a burnt smell in the air to accompany the poor visibility during the day. At first, I ignored it, thinking that the phenomenon was the normal marine layer of fog that accompanies coastal regions combined with someone was burning a little garbage in the street nearby. But when the scent continued and the fog did not lift for several days it became obvious that there was something going on, and I began looking for other possibilities.
Other people have noticed this perma-haze as being abnormal as well. All around eastern and central China reports of the miasma have been surfacing. Hubei province reported their worst foggy weather in a decade. Jiangsu province was assaulted with a severe air pollution increase and announced a yellow level warning over the weekend. The city of Wuhan was encapsulated in a smog cloud so thick that it was not possible to see for greater than a couple dozen meters. Five major highways were closed down for a half hour in Anhui province as the visibility dropped to 20 meters. The city of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, recorded air pollution levels which were near their worst marks in history. On Sunday, the air pollution index in Nanjing jumped to 478, making it the most polluted city in the country which uses this calculation system. In point, this thick, persistent fog is not normal.
Catastrophe or business as usual? The official take on the foggy miasma
I’ve put in a lot of time traveling/ living in China, I don’t freak out or complain about the poor air quality — it’s just a part of life here — but when my city begins to take on the scent of a smoking piece of bread stuck in a toaster, I begin asking questions. I’m not alone. According to an NPR correspondent, the French embassy in Wuhan claimed on their Twitter account that the yellow-gray cloud that descended on their city was the result of a nearby chemical plant explosion. The French embassy has since removed the Tweet, did an about face, and has reverted to the official take on the situation.
The Chinese government says that the gray-yellow clouds which have covered a large portion of the country is the result of a combination of weather conditions, such as rain and humidity, combined with farmers burning wheat straw. Reputedly, the smoke from the burning straw mixed in the air with normal foggy conditions to produce a major environmental hazard.
Tian Yiping, a senior researcher with the provincial environmental monitoring center said inhalable particles rose sharply from 2 a.m. Monday, but concentrations of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide remained normal. . . This proves that the pollution stemmed from the burning of organic matter, not industrial accidents. –Straw burning shrouds central China provinces
I’ve been traveling around Jiangsu province regularly over the past few weeks, and I can attest to the fact that large amounts of straw are being burned in the countryside. It is technically illegal for farmers to burn their excess straw, but they do it anyway as there is no money in recycling it, it needs to be cleared out of the fields before new crops can be planted, and burning it acts as a natural fertilizer. Slash and burn agriculture is common throughout the world, but when this is done on the scale of China — which is to say, to extremes — it can become severely problematic. Reputedly, smoke from these straw fires has been able to completely blanket an area from the coast past Changsha — a distance of over 1500 km.
I must remain partially skeptical, though I cannot bring any facts to the table to back up this position. The farmers burn straw every year but this massive smog cloud that covers a large part of the country is something unusual. “I’m from the countryside and we always burn straw,” a friend told me. “We have fog there and it smells clean and fresh, and we have smoke and it smells like smoke,” she continued, “but here in the cities we have fog and it smells like smoke.”
But I do know that one of the more onerous aspects of living in China is that you never really know what is going on, and the Chinese people feel this frustration as much as the foreigners. The national government completely controls the national media, and they are often not very forthcoming on letting the common people in on what’s happening in their country — especially when it could result in mass hysteria. In China, there is reality and then there is “official reality.” It has often been said that nobody should believe anything in China until it’s been officially denied. The true facts of what is happening in this country are often very difficult to sift out of the chaff.
Though one thing is for sure: the Chinese government does warn its people “to stay indoors or wear masks outdoors.” This sounds pretty ominous to me.
The air quality of many Chinese cities ranks as some of the worst on the planet. I remember the black boogers that would gather in my nose just from taking a walk around Hangzhou in Zhejiang province as well as that unfortunate day when I climbed a tree to get frisbee and came down looking like a soot covered chimney sweeper. Any increase to the average pollution levels in Chinese cities can easily push them to the brink of catastrophe. Taken as is, the mass atmospheric accumulation of organic matter resulting from the burning of straw being suspended in the air by fog takes the air pollution cocktail here to the extreme.
The reported health effects of breathing in the gray-yellow miasma is akin to repeatedly smoking several packs of cigarettes. It was claimed that being outside and breathing the air for 24 hours in Nanjing over the past weekend would have been the equivalent of smoking 340 cigarettes. I spent the past two days in Nanjing — when the air pollution levels were off the charts — and my throat is sore and I have a minor headache, but, ultimately, I feel alright. Though there are reports of the public getting jumpy in other cities, I have not observed this. The air is still thick with the unnatural fog, but the people take care of business as usual.
I’ve been through slash and burn season in various countries many times before, and I know that the skies sometimes get foggy and your throat gets sore for a few days, but you live. If the official reports are correct then this thick gray-yellow cloud should disperse when the farmers finish burning their excess straw. What I worry about is if this take is not representative of reality.