The View From Beijing’s Smog ‘Red Alert’

What does it look like inside China's pollution emergency?


When Beijing awoke Tuesday morning under a thick haze of some of the worst smog on record, it did so knowing that millions of its citizens would spend the next two-and-a-half days stuck inside. Facing the city’s first “red alert” for air pollution — the highest-level warning in China’s four-tier system, which runs from blue, yellow, and orange to red — Beijing officials announced late Monday night they would be closing schools, shutting down outside construction sites, and suspending work at factories through Thursday at noon, when a cold front is expected to clear the haze.

Still reliant heavily on coal power, China has previously suffered through notoriously terrible smog. Even so, this round is particularly bad. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, people should restrict their time outside when the air quality index (AQI), which measures the concentration of pollutants in the air, rises above 200. At 300, people aren’t supposed to go outside at all. In Beijing on Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported an AQI topping 340.

Beijing’s citizens have been through this before, of course. The city clocked a staggering AQI of 755 back in 2013. And those who have ventured outside have documented what it looks like in the haze (and even juxtaposed with photos at the same sites on days with bluer skies).

Take a look below:

Posted Tuesday morning by China’s Xinhua News, these photos show Beijing’s standout landmarks — the National Center for the Performing Arts, the CCTV headquarters, the Gate of Heavenly Peace — foregrounded by shots on clearer days.





Images copyright Xinhua News.

Others have added the outlines of buildings behind the smog, for those who were having trouble figuring out just what they were supposed to be seeing.


Image from Borderless News WeChat Account. H/t ChinaFile.

While the red alert has pulled half of the city’s cars off the road, it also has delayed flights at Beijing’s international airport.



A bird flies over the grounds of the Temple of Heaven.


WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

The central business district seen in heavy smog on Tuesday morning.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

It’s worth noting that while Beijing’s decision to issue a red alert set off a whirlwind of global attention, Delhi, the Indian capital, is also in the throes of its own smog emergency. Around the city, air monitors are posting AQI readings of well over 400.

Additional research by David Wertime and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.  

Top photo credit: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

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