Bad weather day in Beijing as thick haze, pollution blanket city

Updated: June 27, 2007, 3:25 PM ET
Associated Press

BEIJING -- Beijing weather forecasters chose Wednesday to talk up improved technology, meaning more precise predictions for the 2008 Olympics.

They picked a bad day to talk about the weather.

Even by Beijing standards -- the city is one of Asia's most polluted -- Wednesday stood out. By early afternoon, a thick haze significantly reduced visibility. At street level, soot and humid air produced a fog of pollution.

After several days with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees, a rainstorm cooled but further darkened the city with vehicles using headlights most of the afternoon.

Zhai Xiaohui, a spokesman for the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection, described the city as "slightly polluted today."

However, a teacher in a Beijing school said it was worse than that.

"Actually, it is a terrible day," said the teacher at Beijing's Yuetan Middle School, who identified herself as Ms. Yang. "It's extremely sultry and polluted. But it is normal in Beijing. Our students will have outdoor exercises on such days, unless when there are sandstorms."

Health officials warned this week about the possibility of heatstroke, and on Tuesday the Beijing Electric Power Co. said demand was the highest in history.

Beijing's filthy air is one of the biggest concerns of the International Olympic Committee and 2008 Olympic organizers, who worry that elite athletes may be unable to perform under such conditions.

Chinese officials are seeking air pollution tips from the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina to help combat smog and other problems in Beijing.

A group of Chinese air modelers, engineers and meteorologists recently completed three weeks of training at RTI International, a research institute based at RTP, where they learned to use state-of-the-art computer modeling to forecast air pollution.

Beijing's goal is to meet national air standards before it hosts the Olympics. The city is particularly focused on combatting particle pollution, which can cause breathing problems and reduced visibility. That pollution is caused by emissions from power plants, diesel engines and wind-blown dust. High ozone levels, which occur on sunny days when nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons emitted by car tailpipes, power plants and factories react in the air, are also a problem.

RTI scientists helped assemble computer models to help Chinese environmental officials understand the consequences of emissions throughout the region. The company will also provide a technical foundation for Chinese officials to decide which additional pollution controls to adopt.

Beijing officials have closed several chemical and steel plants on the city's edge. Many polluters will shut down -- or cut back -- during the Games, and much dust-producing construction to modernize the capital will be curtailed.

The city has 3 million vehicles and will have 3.3 million when the Games open. Half of them may be kept off the roads during the Olympic's 17-day run.

Wang Yubin, assistant chief engineer with the Beijing Meteorological Bureau, has previously said that historical records show there's a 50 percent chance of rain for the August 8, 2008, opening ceremony -- and the same probability of rain during the closing ceremony.

He told reporters Wednesday that forecasting for the 2008 Olympics would be more precise than before.

He said a 72-hour forecast, with updates every three hours, was better than anything used in the past two Olympics in Athens and Sydney.

"It has been hard for us to achieve this, but we have. It's a big development."

He also acknowledged that earlier claims that Chinese scientists can seed clouds to produce rain -- or disperse rainmaking clouds -- is immature technology.

"Dispersal is more difficult than rainfall enhancement," Wang said. "In rainfall dispersal, we are still in the experimental stage but we are continuing our efforts."

China has tinkered with artificial rainmaking for decades, though the technology is questioned. In 2003, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences questioned the science behind it as "too weak."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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