Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

Beijing Pollution Could Be Deadly To Olympic Spectators

OLYMPIC WEATHERMAN – Meteorologist Doug Charko is part of Canada’s Beijing team

Daphne Bramham – Canwest News Service – Friday, July 25, 2008

Beijing pollution could be deadly to Olympic spectators, a headline in the Los Angeles Times screamed earlier this week.

It was based on a study by researchers from Northwestern University who found that particles spewed from diesel trucks, buses and coal-burning factories – small particles one-tenth the diameter of human hair – inflame the lungs, which then secrete interleukin-6. That causes blood to coagulate and increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Few will be watching the air quality and climate conditions more closely than Doug Charko, who never imagined he would be on the Canadian Olympic team.

It’s because of his specialized skills that he’ll be proudly wearing the red, white and gold uniform in China. Charko is Team Canada’s meteorologist.

That’s right. The Canadian Olympic team has its own weatherman. It’s probably as much as surprise to you as it is to Charko.

“As a meteorologist, you expect to go to a government office and from your government job forecast weather for people’s picnics,” the Regina native said in a telephone interview from New Zealand where he now lives.

“To do the forecasting for the whole team and for Canada and to be involved at this level as part of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s performance-enhancement team is a huge privilege.”

Charko will be providing 10-day forecasts of temperature, humidex and air quality. The Chinese government’s website ( now provides current data and three-day forecasts. But there have been questions raised whether the data are accurate.

“Everyone is competing in the same conditions. The difference in knowing is just that – knowing,” says Charko.

Over the past two years, he’s gathered data and studied historic trends. Despite China’s heavy investment in cleaner power generation, Charko says there’s only been a “minuscule trend downward” in pollution. What will determine the extent of the smog is literally which way the wind blows. If it’s from the northwest, Charko says, the air will be “fantastically clean.” But there’s no guarantee of that and no guarantee it won’t rain despite the much-publicized plan to seed rain clouds to avoid downpours spoiling the opening and closing ceremonies.

“It is actual science (cloud seeding) and it does work on a small scale,” he says. “You can shoot rockets into individual clouds. That puts dust particles into the cloud and it makes it rain. But you can only do that on a small scale.”

August is Beijing’s rainiest month with lots of thunderstorms. Charko predicts five to seven days of showers during the Games with “coolish” temperatures, about 23 degrees, rather than the low 30s with humidity pushing it up into the low 40s.

Hong Kong, where the equestrian events are being held, will be worse – hotter, more humid and more thunderstorms, all of which are bad news especially for the horses.

Of course, most of Charko’s attention will be focused on forecasting wind on the Yellow Sea near Qingdao where the sailors compete. It’s how he came to the attention of the Canadian team.

He was first hired by an America’s Cup team. Then, in 1994 after moving to New Zealand, Charko worked as the meteorologist for the Brazilian sailing team at the Olympics in Sydney and again during the Athens Games.

In 2006, his home country came calling. The Canadian Yachting Association believed having a meteorologist forecasting wind and wind shifts was the secret of Britain’s success in the past two Summer Games.

In Athens, Britain not only had a meteorologist, it had weather stations on boats around the course, pumping out information that was relayed by coaches to sailors using hand signals.

It resulted in a furor and the International Sailing Federation banning forecasting equipment from the course and forcing coaches’ boats to be kept within what Charko calls “the penalty box.”

Charko is a bit of a contrarian, which could be a huge benefit to Canada’s team. He’s forecasting winds of up to 15 knots on four to six of the 14 days that the Olympic regatta is held. When he was there last August for the test regatta, there was one day with 25-knot winds and 10 foot seas. “You just can’t assume that the winds will be three kilometers every day.”

But that’s what some other countries’ sailors have prepared for, trimming their weight by as much as 10 pounds even if it costs them strength. The Canadians have not.

And so far, Charko’s been lucky in another way. None of his equipment has been confiscated.

Two years ago when the Brits set up a weather station in Qingdao, the Chinese secret police accused them of conducting “illegal meteorological surveys” and seized $37,000 worth of the equipment. It has yet to be returned.

The Chinese have also seized weather instruments from the American and Australian teams. They finished first and fourth, respectively, in total sailing medals in 2004, while China came second.

It’s led some people to speculate that at least in this case, China is more concerned about Olympic medals than state security.

Who knew that meteorologists might be worth their weight in gold?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *