Thursday, August 7, 2008

Froggfurter's Adventures

I am proud to announce that my wife Rachel--aka The Froggfurter--has been keeping her own blog of our adventures here in the PRC. Check it out! She has lots of great photos--from bathroom stalls to Buddhist temples--and fascinating insights into life as the exotic yogini at a Beijing yoga retreat. (my apologies for not pointing you to her site sooner!)


Mask on, mask off?

[The Following is a blog I wrote for New Scientist. Check out the original here]

Is Beijing's air safe to breathe?

Members of the US Olympic team came under fire earlier this week for embarrassing their Chinese hosts... by parading through Beijing airport with anti-smog masks covering their faces from ear to ear.

But with the Games' Opening Ceremonies less than a day away, the question remains whether such precautions are a good idea, or worthy of the apology the team members later made to Chinese officials.

One thing that is clear, however, is that the emergency anti-pollution measures enacted on 20 July - pulling half the cars off Beijing's streets, halting construction, shutting down factories - are having little to no effect on the city's pollution levels.

A frequently-updated chart of the city's Air Pollution Index (API), compiled by researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the University of Rhode Island in the US, has found no correlation between the emergency measures and the air quality. In fact, pollution levels nearly doubled in the first week following the 20th, before subsiding.

The reason, says Kenneth Rahn of the University of Rhode Island, has everything to do with wind, and little to do with local pollution prevention measures.

So long as the winds continue to blow out of the south - where the forest of coal-fired plants that powers Beijing is located - air quality in Beijing will continue to worsen, until northern winds out of Mongolia clear the skies. It's a pattern that repeats itself about every two weeks during the summer, and as the Games are about to begin, Beijing is one week into foul air buildup.

But just how bad are pollution levels in the city right now? It depends on who you ask. Most days the API has remained below 100, the magic safe number, as determined by China's Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Yet each country's measurement of API is a little different, making it hard to say just how foul things really are. BeijingAirblog does a good job of converting Beijing's figures to US and Hong Kong API measurements. It finds that the city's current air pollution would register as moderate in the US and, surprisingly, high in Hong Kong.

Walking through central Beijing on Monday afternoon - early in the current week-long pollution buildup - I found pea-soup skies and a sun that disappeared behind a thick haze at 5:30, nearly two hours before actual sunset.

If I were an athlete, I think I'd make whatever apologies were necessary, but give them through the best mask I could find on any days I didn't see blue skies overhead. Still, I wouldn't be pointing any fingers; I doubt the API of Los Angeles in 1984 was much better than today's Beijing.


Eclipse over the Great Wall

Check out the following videos I made of the August 1 total solar eclipse. To take in the event I traveled to the very western end of the Great Wall at a place called Jiayuguan. There, I watched the eclipse with more than 100 others from the top of a Ming Dynasty fort on the edge of the Gobi desert. Totally amazing!

Check out the full story here. Videos © New Scientist. Eclipse image courtesy of Alphonse Sterling, NASA.


Getting to the eclipse site was totally nuts. I flew into Dunhuang, a couple hundred kilometers further west of Jiayuguan on a flight full of eclipse chasers from Germany and the US.
In the days leading up to the 1st, thousands of eclipsers were pouring into the region from all over the world and local officials started to freak! We were told that entrance into the special Eclipse Cities they set up in the desert would now be road blocked and only those with prearranged permits would be allowed in. One group I was hoping to join for the event had to find a new viewing site after the place they'd been planning to use for a year was suddenly barred to foreigners a week before the event.
I couldn't really figure out what the big deal was until someone pointed out that the eclipse path cut through a lot of closed off military land including Jiuquan, the launch site of China's two recent manned space flights. Getting worked up over countless foreigners pouring across the desert with giant telescoping cameras suddenly started to make a lot more sense.