Note: This post first appeared on the author’s site on December 14, 2013.
Today is a good day to blog about air quality in Beijing. The great city of Beijing is at the moment completely shrouded in a mysterious veil of grey mist that has been hanging in the air day and night for the last three days. Looking out the window, it could be mistaken for a snow storm settling in on a city in North America – shades of grey everywhere and the air thick with powder. Which could be considered romantic!
However, this is anything but. Another reason it seems like an opportune day to blog about it is because the construction crane for the twenty-something storied office tower being built right in front of our building is being lowered today. I have been using that construction crane as a framing element for a series of pictures from my fifteenth-floor window to capture the levels of pollution to illustrate this blog post which has been brewing in my head for a few months now. If the crane is coming down today, it’s a sign to me that I need to stop taking more pictures and get down to writing about it! Besides, what better time than the holiday season to talk about air pollution?!
“So the air quality in Beijing… how bad is it really?” my friends outside China ask me from time to time. As far as expat life in Beijing goes, that is the elephant in the room. I have to talk about it. But a picture is worth a thousand words they say, so let’s start with some images.
As you can see, it is starting to inspire local ‘fashion’, ‘seasonal styling’ for designer face masks, and local humor. In essence, it’s becoming part of the daily life in Beijing! The acronym AQI used in the last picture frame stands for Air Quality Index — a term I was unaware of until I moved to Beijing but which is now simply part of my daily life. That is to say, the AQI app on my smartphone occupies the top left corner of the main display, and every morning it’s the first thing I look at because it dictates my plans for the rest of the day. The higher the AQI, the worse the air quality. Different folks set different rules for themselves and their kids, but bad days mean you stay indoors with the air purifiers on.
Beijing air quality has even been making international news, especially since the winter at the beginning of last year which has been the worst air year ever in Beijing. Colorful, creative labels got coined this year such as “Airpocalypse” and “Airmageddon“. A couple of years before the Airpocalypse though, there was “Crazy Bad”, a term used by an American embassy official in November 2010 to describe the air quality that was literally ‘off the charts’ — the reading went beyond the limits of the monitoring index which only goes up to twenty times worse than ‘good’ air. It was a Twitter gaffe that was hurriedly corrected and replaced with a much more euphemistic “Beyond Index” rating. Beijing’s air quality broke the index in 2010, and in 2013 it actually climbed to almost twice that crazy bad reading. Fact is, people are running out of words to describe what the air looks like on bad days.
In any case, you can look at the air, and see it (think about that for a moment). So instead of resorting to words, I decided to chronicle the air quality of Beijing in pictures. Over the last few months (July – December 2013), I have taken a series of pictures from my apartment window as the air quality readings went up and down. I tried to use approximately the same view, and took pictures at approximately the same time, around 11 AM. From my fifteenth floor window, I have a clear line of sight to Beijing’s central business district with its iconic buildings — The CCTV headquarters (aka “Big Shorts”), the China World Trade Center Tower III, and the Park Tower of the Beijing Yintai Center being the tallest of the lot. Watch as this beautiful sight changes, gets veiled, then dissolves into thick air with the rising air quality index readings.
Find out more here Footwalker (VPN needed)
This post first appeared in the author’s blog Footwalker on December 14, 2013.
The author, Smita Chandra Thomas, is a wanderer and wonderer seeking truth, and magic. Her lens gravitates to the enriching, the bemusing, art and architecture, efficiency, and natural beauty. Her day job brings much of this together in sustainability projects that save energy in buildings and reduce impact on the environment. She is also the delighted and distracted mother of a 3-year-old.
Photos by Smita Chandra Thomas