Beijing pollution (cont.)
After a couple of terribly hazy days in late July, the sky cleared, and Beijing officials rejoiced at the prospect of an azure backdrop for the Games. But, barring more extreme weather patterns, like typhoons coming from the south of China that could deflect pollution around Beijing (one hit in late July), the atmospheric circulation in China will not pause for the XXIX Olympiad. "I want the Chinese people to have a high quality Olympics," Rahn says, "but you have to be realistic. Chances are [the air] won't be as good as they want."
The Chinese have their pollution fighting hearts in the right place, and they had reason to be hopeful that the traffic ban would bring blue skies. It appeared to do so in November 2006, during the two-day Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. During the summit, large numbers of cars were taken off the road, and the skies were blissfully blue. But it happened to coincide with stronger than usual winds from the northwest.
When Rahn and Tsinghua University researchers measured particulate pollution last summer during a four day period in which 40 percent of cars where taken off the roads, "nothing happened," he says. "There was probably a small change, but it was undetectable."
Beside the pollution sweeping up from the south, Beijing faces one other indomitable foe in the smog wars: rain, or, really, lack thereof. Water in the atmosphere gloms on to pollution particles and drags them to the ground when it rains, clearing the skies. Beijing, located in a relatively arid region of northern China, gets just over half the annual rainfall of New York City. "It's like if you moved New York to the American West and expected to get clean air," Rahn says. Chinese officials have tried the dubious method of cloud-seeding, spraying particles into clouds to provide nuclei for rain drops, to increase the amount of pollution clearing rain, but cloud-seeding has never proven effective. Plus, the air at cloud level is moving, so even if rain clears one segment of air, it won't last. If the air at cloud level is moving at a reasonable 20 miles per hour, to clear the sky over an Olympic event for one hour would require clearing 20 square miles of sky, a completely unprecedented and probably outlandish feat.
Not that the traffic controls are totally worthless in reducing haze. Within the regional atmospheric circulation that causes the smog cycles, there are local cycles, with rush hours pushing pollution up somewhat, and wok-cooking bolstering particulate pollution at night. Beijing has done all it can with cars, and a wok ban would seem farfetched.
Still, by taking cars off the streets, and shuttering factories -- one large steel factory was even relocated to an island downwind -- and halting construction, Beijing officials have made an Olympian effort on the local level. Alas, if only the problem were local. According to multiple American scientists who work with Chinese researchers, Chinese officials have, in the last few months, begun to recognize that the smog is a regional problem, worsened by the new coal power plants that go online at least weekly in China. For the last few months, the scientists say, Chinese officials have started traveling to the provinces south of Beijing to remind local leaders that they have a duty to help ensure a pristine Olympics, and that they should consider enacting measures to reduce particulate pollution. But these southern provinces power Beijing, and the cost of shutting them down would be astronomical. Ultimately, Chinese officials are left to "pray to the Mongolian weather gods to send cold fronts," as Rahn puts it.
On the bright side, while particulate pollution has been shown to have an impact on exercise capacity, carbon monoxide, which crowds out oxygen in the blood, should probably be of more concern to athletes at the Games than smog, and the traffic ban may indeed impact carbon monoxide levels in some areas. Tune in to Part Two for more info on the impacts of particulate matter pollution and carbon monoxide on athletes.