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Beijing’s air pollution as seen from space

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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On January 13, The New York Times reported that air pollution levels in Beijing, China were elevated to a point “beyond indexing”. The readings help form the Air Quality Index (PDF), which is used to determine levels of harmful particulate matter, and topped out at 755 ppm at a monitoring station at the U.S. Embassy (on a scale of 500).

The folks at NASA have posted two satellite images that show what the entire Beijing region looks like with and without a shroud of smog:

From Earth Observatory:

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired these natural-color images of northeastern China on January 14 (top) and January 3, 2013. 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. In areas where the ground is visible, some of the landscape is covered with lingering snow from storms in recent weeks. (Snow is more prominent in the January 3 image.)

At the time that the January 14 image was taken by satellite, ground-based sensors at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported PM2.5 measurements of 291 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

Most outlooks suggest that China’s demand for energy will continue to increase in the coming decades. If left unchecked, it’s reasonable to expect that air quality will continue to degrade as there are more manufacturing, personal vehicles, and power plants in China burning fuel.

A question is: how long can this go on? My guess is that human health will be one of the most important drivers in China cleaning up its energy sector. It’s hard to do much else if people don’t have clean water to drink or air to breathe.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Forsythkid 6:39 pm 01/15/2013

    I’ll hazard a guess that at some points during America’s Industrial Revolution, pollution was also a problem that helped to prematurely end the lives of many citizens. That China has not learned this lesson from history only supports the adage that goes something like, ‘We are all doomed to relive that which we have forgotten.’ God help the citizens of that country who will now pay the price for forgetfulness.

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  2. 2. CherryBombSim 8:29 pm 01/15/2013

    “How long can this go on?”

    I think they are at the point where the city will have no choice except to enact strict pollution controls. Judging by what happened in L.A. around 1970 and Mexico City around 1990, it will take about five years for the people to see any noticeable difference. Once they see an actual improvement, the public pressure will increase to get the air even cleaner.

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  3. 3. N49th 10:52 pm 01/15/2013

    America’s Industrial Revolution? Try London, England’s Industrial Revolution. It was not the tourist trap it is now.
    China, as per usual, is just multiplying the problem times 10.

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  4. 4. mrroberto 12:38 am 01/16/2013

    The last book of the bible. Did it say that we weren’t going to be able to go outside?

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  5. 5. gribeir8 7:27 am 01/16/2013

    I cannot imagine how bad I must be there…
    In a dry winter day in Sao Paulo the dark gray smog in the horizon justifies the smell of smoke and sewage burning our noses.

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  6. 6. Scientifik 8:23 am 01/16/2013

    “God help the citizens of that country who will now pay the price for forgetfulness.”

    God will NOT help them. They will have to clean up the mess themselves.

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  7. 7. Scientifik 8:36 am 01/16/2013

    I know it must scare the bejesus out of some folks but we have to learn to take responsibility for our own actions.

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  8. 8. TTLG 1:45 pm 01/16/2013

    Looks a lot like the smog in Los Angeles back in the 1970′s. The big question is whether it will take something as bad as the London fog of 1952 before they are motivated to do what is necessary to fix it.

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  9. 9. gendzaster 1:53 pm 01/16/2013

    I wonder how much of that pollution gets picked up and transfered to america riding the jet stream?

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  10. 10. JanetColdwell 12:03 pm 06/14/2013

    those images are pretty shocking and indicate that the Chinese may not be adhering to their emission targets. dianabol

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