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Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Updated: August 5, 4:29 PM ET

"Sunshine go away today, I don't feel much like dancing."

T-minus 44 days until the Opening Ceremonies.

One of the more interesting Olympics-related developments to watch heading into next month is whether Beijing's recent spate of air quality initiatives—the hiring of foreign environmental experts, a halt on construction and a shutdown of factories, the removal of half the city's cars—will have any effect. In other words, after spending $17.1 billion, according to Xinhua, on improving air quality these last few years, will we see more blue skies and less of this?

We decided to ask an expert. Enter David Streets, a senior scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, who has been involved in Chinese air quality research for about 15 years.

"I think there's definitely been a lot of improvement," Streets said, taking a long view of the situation. "I'm pretty pro-China in terms of what it's been able to achieve. With relatively limited resources—I don't think most people realize that China has a lot of problems and limited money, and so you can't expect them to devote as much resources as we do to the environment. They have to worry about education and rural development and health care and all these other things. And yet, I think there's been great progress, especially in the major cities."

Streets differentiated between Beijing's springtime and summertime air quality, pointing out that shifting wind patterns will change the source of pollution come August (example: say goodbye to those nasty sandstorms from the north). And, coupled with policy initiatives like the halting of construction, Beijing could be a different place when the Games come around.

But will there be blue skies?

"If the weather complies, then I believe things will be generally okay," Streets explained. "If the weather turns adverse, then I don't know … it might be a problem."

The weather?

"Stagnation episodes," he continued. "Very low winds, high temperatures, no rain. Then you're going to get buildup of pollution."

He went on to point out that Beijing is nestled between hills to the north and west, and that these hills trap dust particles over the metropolis. The bottom line is that Olympic organizers, after all they say and do, may be left praying for wind and rain in the week before the Opening Ceremonies.

Of course, who can predict the weather? (Answer: these guys, apparently.)


Torch relay update: Just passed: Qinghai Lake, China's largest salt-water lake, in the western province of Qinghai. It's far enough West to border two of China's autonomous regions, Xinjiang and Tibet (the flame recently made an uneventful stop at Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region). Next up: Xining, Qinghai's provincial capital.