China’s Epic Smog Seen from Space – A City Disappears

Posted by on Oct 24, 2013 in News | No Comments

NASA Image - Earth Observatory -  LANCE MODIS Rapid Response

NASA Image – Earth Observatory – LANCE MODIS Rapid Response

First, I’d like to apologise for my lack of posts recently. I am on the road in Japan at the moment, shooting an assignment and trying not to get caught up in Typhoon Francisco which is currently descending on the south east of the country.

While I have been out of China, it seems that some of the worst smog in recent memory hit the city of Harbin. The scenes in these pictures are quite amazing. It looks like PM (Particulate Matter) readings have been going off the charts.

NASA’s Earth Observatory just released this satellite image (above – click HERE for the high res version) of the smog which engulfed Harbin. It’s quite an astonishing image in that a city has been smothered to the point of disappearance.

China watchers will know that smog is not a rare occurrence in north-east China, however PM levels of this magnitude are quite unique.

Here’s a breakdown of the situation, according to NASA:

Chinese authorities shut down much of Harbin—a city of more than 10 million people—as unusually high levels of pollution shrouded the city and the surrounding region in mid-October. Measurements taken on October 20, 2013, scored the air quality index (AQI) in the city at 500, the highest possible reading. Levels above 300 are considered hazardous to human health.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this natural-color image of northeastern China on October 21, 2013. The brightest areas are fog, which has a tinge of gray or yellow due to the air pollution. Other cloud-free areas have a pall of gray and brown smog that blots out the city and surrounding towns.

Some neighborhoods experienced concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) as high as 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter. For comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards say PM2.5 should remain below 35 micrograms per cubic meter. It is extremely rare for particulate levels to reach that high in the absence of a dust storm or forest fire.

Air pollution obscures the view from Coal Hill in central Beijing, China.
 view of air pollution over the CCTV building in Beijing, China.
Air pollution obscures the view of the Forbidden City from Coal Hill in central Beijing, China.
A cyclist passes Tiananmen Square on a heavily polluted day in the capital.
Young men pose for pictures on Coal Hill in central Beijing, China. Air pollution obscures the view of the Forbidden City behind them.

Chinese authorities grounded airplanes, shuttered thousands of schools, and closed major roads in response to the surge in pollution. A few days after pollution levels started to rise, Harbin hospitals reported a 30 percent increase in admissions related to respiratory problems, and several Harbin pharmacies were sold out of pollution facemasks, according to media reports.

Cold weather and the lack of wind helped fuel the pollution outbreak, but human factors also played an important role. Wheat and corn farmers in the region light fires in the fall to burn off debris following the harvest. Also, city officials turned on Harbin’s city-wide, coal-powered heating system just prior to the pollution outbreak, according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The slideshow above is from a series of photos I made for Foreign Policy Magazine last year on a particularly bad pollution day in Beijing. The residents of Harbin seem to have suffered a fate even worse than Beijing’s residents in these pictures. A reality hard to imagine.

Explore the links below for more images and info about the scourge of air pollution in China.

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