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The Smog Remains the Same

Rocky Mountain News – July 27, 2008 8:56 AM

Measuring air quality in something called “blue sky days” is a bit strange, kind of like how the U.S. government used to measure nuclear radiation in “sunshine units.” Something’s getting lost in the translation. But still, blue sky — meaning any day with acceptable air quality — is the benchmark that the United Nations uses to keep track of the air in cities around the world. The good news for these Olympics, if you believe the latest numbers: between July 1 and 25, there were 22 blue sky days in Beijing.

The bad news: there’s absolutely no way that those numbers are accurate.

Now, I only arrived July 2, but according to my track, I’ve only seen a blue sky five times since. Two of those days are what American meteorologists would call “partially cloudy.” By my count, there have only been three truly sunny days — days where the smog hasn’t been overwhelming, which is what the UN is really referring to with the term “blue sky” — here in Beijing. I saw more of the sun in four days in Hong Kong than I have in my entire stay in Beijing combined.

And another thing: the smog’s not going away. Beijing says that pollution is down 20 percent since the city cut the number of cars on the road by half, but the smog is as bad as it’s been all month. The photo at top right is the view of the skyline here in Northwest Beijing, about 15 minutes from the Bird’s Nest. Those buildings are less than a mile away from where I was standing when I took the photo. The photo was taken at about 6 p.m. today, a few hours before sundown.

It’s tough to exaggerate this: if the pollution does not clear away within the next two weeks, the smog will be the big story of these Olympic Games. It’s that hard to breathe in the city right now.

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