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Airpocalypse! Another Smog Storm Covers China

The east of China is again engulfed in a blanket of smog so think in places you can hardly see down the street. Children have been ordered to remain indoors, and the people have been ordered to take measures to protect their health.

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“The windows are messed up!” my daughter exclaimed upon waking up yesterday morning.

It was true: the windows were like the paper doors of an old Japanese house — opaque at best. You couldn’t see out of them, and only a mellow glow of morning light shown through. But it wasn’t the windows that were messed up, it was the air outside, the air that we breath.

China is in the middle of another “airpocalypse.” A thick, opaque fog has descended upon the streets and extends high up into the atmosphere. In some places visibility on the ground is so poor that highways have been closed, the government has ordered children to be kept indoors, and Beijing has issued its first ever orange level smog warning — meaning that viability is under 200 meters — while advising its residents to “take measures to protect their health.”

Hey, at least they acknowledged the catastrophe — I suppose that’s a step in the right direction.

Smog storm in Beijing

Smog storm in Beijing

For the past five days Beijing has been registering some of its worse air conditions in its recorded history. The Air Quality Index is a scale designed by the US Environmental Protection Agency that rates air pollution on a scale of 0 to 500. On Saturday, the air pollution reading in Beijing topped 886, completely “Beyond Index.” For reference, readings of 300 to 500 are considered hazardous to human health, and anything over 500 is considered to be over 20 times the level of particulate matter in the air deemed safe by the World Health Organization. Throughout this smog storm, the readings in Beijing have regularly been hazardous and above. For the record, China does not officially recognize any readings over 500.

These measurements gauge the amount of PM2.5, which is particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size, or 1/30th the width of the average human hair. These dust particles are small enough to be absorbed into the air sacs of the lungs and can transfer viruses and bacteria directly into the airway, causing various infections. Long term exposure can result in tumors.

China perhaps has the distinction of being the first place in the world to experience what amounts to smog storms. They cover not just one city or two, but vast parts of the country for days on end. This current smog storm stretches from Beijing down to Zhejiang province, from the coastal city of Tianjin west to Kunming, covering thousands of square miles.

air pollution map China

Map of area effected by this current smog epidemic, or “airpocalypse.”

This is the second smog storm that has happened since I returned to China last March. The first one was in June, and the smog cloud stretched from Shangdong in the north to south of Zhejiang, from the coast in the east all the way out passed Hunan to the west, blanketing thousands of miles and about a fifth of the country. The congealed pollution was so thick that I could hardly make out high-rises that rose only a couple of blocks away from me, and when out on the streets the tops of many tall buildings were obstructed from view.

Now the miasma is back, we’re in the middle of another airpocalypse. My daughter is hacking and coughing, and we are not even near the epicenter of this storm. I look out my window and everything beyond the foreground is blanked out by fog like a poorly photoshopped image. The sun is high in the sky, but it merely looks like a light bulb within a lampshade. This would otherwise have been a sunny day, there is not a cloud in the sky — only an overcast of smog, thick smog.

China air pollution

The sun over Taizhou in Jiangsu province

Though the air is choked with smog the  message is perhaps clear that China’s method of development have been taken beyond an environmental breaking point, the world’s factory is quickly becoming uninhabitable. Whether this recent smog epidemic is a new type of environmental catastrophe or simply just what happens when low winds in China don’t blow the pollution away, I’m not sure. What I do know is that when smog clouds so thick that it’s difficult to see down the street engulfs thousands of square miles it’s an indication that something is going very wrong.

I once had a Chinese medicine professor in Hangzhou who would wear a full gas mask when walking around outside to avoid breathing polluted air. People used to think he was nuts. Not anymore.


Filed under: Articles, China, Environment, Pollution

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

8 comments… add one

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  • polyphydont January 16, 2013, 4:45 am

    I don’t understand why it would help to stay indoors. Unless the smog cover is very brief or the apartment air is filtered, it should not be long before there is the same air quality inside as out?

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    • Vagabond Journey January 17, 2013, 7:56 am

      @polyphydont Apparently, windows and walls will help keep out some of  the particulate matter, but I doubt it really helps that much.

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  • coal October 23, 2013, 1:11 am

    i don’t understand why the chinese gov’t don’t encourage more public transportation or free public transportation. all the se environmentalist talk about pollution but won’t pay for FREE public transportation. it’s the coal power plants that is the caused of the problem. all the computers and light bulbs sucking electricity. that is growth. the city in China is similiar to cities in europe when coal burning to power factories. coal is cheap or only feasible source of energy for china at this point.

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    • Wade Shepard October 23, 2013, 1:22 am

      The people want the status and feeling of elitism of owning and driving cars. There is truly no reason to own a car in China (well, if you don’t live in a new city built for cars), as the public transportation system is excellent and cheap. But using it means taking the “commoners” mode of transit, which is something that many people here would lose face doing.

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  • coal October 23, 2013, 1:13 am

    the china has the opportunity to build cities that isn’t car centric like urban spawl in US cities or even in europe. The US cities are designed for cars. cars buring gasoline and factories burning coal for power in china is the main polluters. The planet cannot sustain or support this king of growth with coal or burning of fossile fuels.

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    • Wade Shepard October 23, 2013, 1:23 am

      This is very true, and they are doing that to a certain extend. But they are mostly doing the exact opposite: building cities designed for people driving their own cars.

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  • coal October 23, 2013, 1:16 am

    Al Gore says that if all the coal, oil, natural gas reserves of these energy companies were to burned into the atmosphere it’ll destroy the planet and he is right. all the energy reserves in saudi arabia and texas oil reserves. all these oil companies are valued based on their energy reserves but if you were actually sell all that oil and burn it , it’s not feasible to the planet. if all the natural and oil reserves were to be sold and released into the atmosphere it’s not feasbile. these companies have 50 years of reserves. saudi arabia been selling oil for 50 years.

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  • coal October 23, 2013, 1:18 am

    Where is the fossile fuels to feed the demand for electricity to power the air conditioning in the desert, power the computers, power the heating, power this. modern civilization is depedent on electricity and in China fossil burning like coal and oil is the only source or feasible and cheapest source of energy. coal is abundant supply. and cheapest to make as fuel for generating electricity.

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