Beijing residents discover blue skies, stars

As the 2008 Olympics pass their halfway point, Beijing residents looking upward have begun to notice something new.

People walk on the paved grounds outside Beijing's Olympic "Bird's Nest" with a backdrop of blue skies and white clouds, August 15.

As the 2008 Olympics pass their halfway point, Beijing residents looking upward have begun to notice something new. The sky has changed from a dull beige to a bright blue. At night, countless luminous points flicker through the darkness above.

Thanks to a combination of favorable weather and a massive government effort to curb the city's industrial pollution, Beijing reported its eighth straight day of "excellent" air quality on Sunday, the best the city has seen in a decade.

Xinhua, China's official news agency, reports that the city's air pollution index – which measures atmospheric pollutants and their health effects – showed a reading of 43, up from 23 the previous day but still within the "excellent" range of 1 to 50.

By comparison, a US east coast city would have an index level of about 10 to 20, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The Irish Times notes that Beijing's residents are getting used to the cleaner air. "Weather forecasters here have spoken of the sky being clear and overcast, an apparent contradiction," writes Clifford Coonan, "but a statement that makes perfect sense in a city hardened by years of foul pollution."

The New York Times's Jim Yardley quotes Julie Ertel and Matt Reed, two American triathletes who attended the Aug. 8 opening ceremony, flew to a training camp in South Korea, and then returned over the weekend.

It’s like night and day from when we flew in the first time,” Mr. Reed told the Times. “It’s amazing. It’s clear.”

According to Xinhua, Beijing's government has spent more than $20 billion since 1998 on projects to improve the city's air quality. In recent months, the city has frozen construction projects, shut down quarries, and reduced steel production. Beginning July 20, the city began banning cars in the city on alternate days.

Restrictions of these types will remain in place until late September, until after the conclusion of the Paralympic Games.

Although some are dubious about Beijing's measurement standards, there's little doubt that China's efforts have noticeably cleared the air. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker – a journalists' blog that tracks science stories – notes the paucity of coverage of Beijing's sudden improvement, and hopes that the city's reprieve from smog will be more than temporary:

Despite such reports as these, the coverage has been scant in view of the immense anxiety over air quality for the last year or more. One can assume that if pollution indices, and the clarity of the view, remain good it will get substantial media attention. One hopes reporters who remain in Beijing in coming weeks and months will let us know whether and how fast the air reverts to its noxious normal. An object lesson in emissions controls - and their payoff - just might impress the citizenry and lawmakers enough to help put enforcement teeth into China’s pollution standards.

Last week, I wrote about one team of scientists who are sending drone aircraft over the Yellow Sea to measure the effects of the air-quality improvements.

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