Sandstorm and smog combination causes terrible air quality in Beijing

Air rated at ’Beyond Index’
A police officer in plain clothes, left, rides a bicycle past tourists pose for a group photo on Tiananmen Square on a hazy day in Beijing, China, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013. Pollution worsened in China’s capital and surrounding regions on Thursday, as the country’s new leaders geared up for a major congress where experts expect pollution to be on the agenda. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

A covering of smog and grit so thick that it couldn’t even be measured on a traditional air quality index descended over Beijing Thursday, prompting heath concerns.

By 6 a.m. local time Thursday, the Twitter account @BeijingAir, which is operated by the U.S. Embassy, listed the air quality at “Beyond Index,” meaning it is off the charts.


The air quality remained at “Beyond Index” or “Very Unhealthy” or “Hazardous” for much of the rest of the day.

Here’s what it looked like in Tiananmen Square:

A police officer in plain clothes, left, rides a bicycle past tourists in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Feb. 28, 2013. (Alexander F. Yuan/AP)

The poor air quality was caused, partially, by a sandstorm blowing in from the northern part of the country, writes Time Beijing correspondent Austin Ramzy. “On Wednesday afternoon I sat in an office building on the city’s east side and could see across the city of some 20 million to the Fragrant Hills to the west, the sort of clarity that only happens a few times a year,” Ramzy writes. “Then, within the space of an hour, visibility was back to the Beijing standard of a few blocks.”

The city’s Environmental Protection Bureau said citizens should stay indoors, if possible.

Beijing has had multiple problems with smog this winter, caused by a combination of coal-fired plants, industrial factories, cars and poor-quality fuel. In January, smog made visibility so bad that some flights at the Beijing airport had to be cancelled.

This most recent smog day comes just days before the national legislature opens. Some observers are predicting that the timing could force politicians to make good on their promise to address environmental issues. “This issue has aroused extensive public concern,” Beijing-based environmentalist Ma Jun told Bloomberg News. “Before it was in certain specific cases. Now it’s about the air people breathe and the water they drink, which affect hundreds of millions of people.”