China starts televising the sunrise on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog

The smog has become so thick in Beijing that the city’s natural light-starved masses have begun flocking to huge digital commercial television screens across the city to observe virtual sunrises.

The futuristic screens installed in the Chinese capital usually advertize tourist destinations, but as the season’s first wave of extremely dangerous smog hit – residents donned air masks and left their homes to watch the only place where the sun would hail over the horizon that morning.

Commuters across Beijing found themselves cloaked in a thick, gray haze on Thursday as air pollution monitors issued a severe air warning and ordered the elderly and school children to stay indoors until the quality improved.

The air took on an acrid odor, and many of the city’s commuters wore industrial strength face masks as they hurried to work.

‘I couldn’t see the tall buildings across the street this morning,’ said a traffic coordinator at a busy Beijing intersection who gave only his surname, Zhang. ‘The smog has gotten worse in the last two to three years. I often cough, and my nose is always irritated. But what can you do? I drink more water to help my body discharge the toxins.’

The city’s air quality is often poor, especially in winter when stagnant weather patterns combine with an increase in coal-burning to exacerbate other forms of pollution and create periods of heavy smog for days at a time.

But the readings early Thursday for particles of PM2.5 pollution marked the first ones of the season above 500 micrograms per cubic meter.

Public announcement: The LED screen shows the slogan ‘protecting atmospheric environment is everyone’s responsibility’ on the Tiananmen Square which is shrouded with heavy smog on January 16, 2014 in Beijing, China
Public announcement: The LED screen shows the slogan ‘protecting atmospheric environment is everyone’s responsibility’ on the Tiananmen Square which is shrouded with heavy smog on January 16, 2014 in Beijing, China

The density of PM2.5 was about 350 to 500 micrograms Thursday midmorning, though the air started to clear in the afternoon. It had reached as high as 671 at 4 a.m. at a monitoring post at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

That is about 26 times as high as the 25 micrograms considered safe by the World Health Organization, and was the highest reading since January 2013.

Serious air pollution plagues most major Chinese cities, where environmental protection has been long sacrificed for the sake of economic development.

Coal burning and car emissions are major sources of pollution. In recent years, China has beefed up regulations and pledged financial resources to fight pollution.

In the far northeastern city of Harbin, some monitoring sites reported PM 2.5 rates of up to 1,000 micrograms in October, when the winter heating season kicked off. In December, dirty air gripped the coastal city of Shanghai and its neighboring provinces for days, with the density of PM 2.5 exceeding 600.

Beijing authorities said the haze on Thursday had reduced the visibility to several hundred meters (yards) and that the severe pollution was likely to continue through Friday.

Beijing’s mayor pledged on Thursday to cut coal use by 2.6 million tonnes and set aside 15 billion yuan ($2.4 billion) to improve air quality this year as part of the city’s ‘all-out effort’ to tackle air pollution, state news agency Xinhua said.

A tourist takes photos during a heavily polluted day on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014
A tourist takes photos during a heavily polluted day on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014

Beijing’s skyscrapers receded into a dense gray smog Thursday as the capital saw the season’s first wave of extremely dangerous pollution.

The announcement by Wang Anshun came as the capital was blanketed in its worst smog in months. An index measuring PM2.5 particles, especially bad for health, reached 500 in much of the capital in the early hours.

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