How Climate Change Covered China in Smog

By Lauren Hinkel

It is well-documented and known that China’s air quality, particularly in its cities, is less than stellar. But in January of 2013, the country’s smog reached a new level that some called the “airpocalypse”, closing schools, highways and airports. In one day, thousands of children went to Beijing Children’s Hospital for respiratory problems. At this time, Beijing’s US Embassy reported that a particular polluting aerosol (PM 2.5) that affects repiratory and pulmonary systems skyrocketed above 850 micrograms per cubic metter; per the UN, 20 micrograms per cubic meter is the highest safe level. And as Robinson Meyer writes for The Atlantic, “At least 50 of the country’s 74 major cities exceeded national air-quality standards. The episode remains the worst haze pollution ever recorded in the month of January.”

But often after the pollution source ceases, the smog usually subsides. This was not the case for China in January of 2013.

Two new studies revisit the episode. Both of them argue that climate change will make this kind of smog event much more common. And, remarkably, one of them asserts that the Chinese smog of January 2013 was worsened by two weather phenomena thousands of miles away. Because the Arctic Ocean froze less than it usually does, and because higher-than-usual snowdrifts piled up across the boreal forests of Russia, millions of Chinese people were subjected to some of the worst air pollution ever measured.

MIT Joint Program researcher and MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences(EAPS)/ MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society Associate Professor Noelle Selin comments on how local weather can influence global air pollution.

Read the story in The Atlantic.