Environment, Science

Pollution Shuts Down Chinese City

Image: Fredrik Rubensson
The smog in Harbin, China. Image: Fredrik Rubensson

The air pollution was so bad in Harbin, in China, on October 21 that the city was forced to close roads and schools, and to cancel hundreds of flights from its airport.

News reports said the smog (a mixture of smoke and fog) was so thick that people couldn’t see more than 10 or 20 metres in front of them.

According to unofficial reports, people could not even see the person standing next to them. The city’s website said: “You can’t see your own fingers in front of you.”

Residents said there was a “burning” smell in the air. Many people covered their noses and mouths with scarves or masks.

The pollution was blamed on several factors including: farmers burning off old corn stalks and crop stubble; coal-fired heating systems; and low winds that allowed the smoke to remain over the city.

The smog had been building up for several days. It became worse when the city turned on the public heating system, which uses coal to heat millions of homes and offices in the city.

Harbin has a population of more than 10 million people. It is located in northeastern China, where cold winter weather can last up to six months. The main source of fuel there is coal, because it is cheaper than other types of fuel.

Coal is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions (the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming) as well as acid rain and other harmful air pollutants.

Air pollution from burning coal can cause health problems like heart and lung disease. During the smog crisis in Harbin, the number of people taken to the hospital with respiratory (breathing) problems was 30 per cent higher than usual.

The city government is trying to reduce its use of coal by adding more insulation and better roofs and windows to buildings to reduce heating needs. It has also adopted cleaner fuel standards for cars and factories.

Beijing, the capital of China, suffered a similar pollution crisis in January 2013. Now, when pollution levels are high, Beijing plans to impose emergency measures. People will not be allowed to drive their cars every day; factories will have to close down or reduce production; and no construction or demolition work will be allowed until the crisis has passed.

Air pollution is measured by the amount of “particulate matter” in the air. Particulate matter is made up of microscopic solid particles and liquid droplets from sources like smoke, dust, ash, pollen, fumes and aerosol sprays. It is reported on a scale called the Air Quality Index (AQI).

When the smog was at its worst in Harbin, the city’s AQI was 500 – the highest possible reading on the scale. For the same day, the AQI reading in New York City (the largest U.S. city by population) was 41. The AQI reading for Toronto (Canada’s most populous city) was 17.

Related sites

Check current AQI for cities in Ontario.

Environment Canada provides Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) readings, which report on the health risk posed by the current air quality.

Find your local AQHI.

Harbin is also famous for its annual ice festival. Visit Harbin’s website.
A YouTube video about Harbin’s annual ice festival.

By Jonathan Tilly

Writing/Discussion Prompt
Today’s article explains not only the causes for Harbin’s extreme air pollution crisis, but also what is being done to fix it. Do you think companies and politicians who have contributed to the problem through their actions should be punished? If not, why not? If yes, what punishment do you feel they deserve and why?

Reading Prompt: Analysing Texts
Scientific language is used throughout today’s article. Ask an adult or use a a dictionary to ensure that you understand these terms.

How does the use of specific scientific language help a reader understand a text? What impression is made on a reader when they read an article containing scientific language?

Analyse texts and explain how various elements in them contribute to meaning (OME, Reading: 1.7).

Analyse a variety of texts, both simple and complex, and explain how the different elements in them contribute to meaning and influence the reader’s reaction (OME, Reading: 1.7).

Grammar Feature: Parenthesis ( )
Parentheses or brackets are punctuation marks that are used by writers to tell their readers additional useful or helpful information. Writer’s often include text within parentheses to clarify ideas, give examples, or to explain.

Today’s article contains many sets of parentheses. Reread the sentences that contain parentheses and discuss with a friend reasons why the author chose to include them in her article.