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China’s toxic air pollution resembles nuclear winter, say scientists

 
Air Pollution in China

China’s worsening air pollution has exacted a significant economic toll, grounding flights, closing highways and deterring tourists. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “China’s toxic air pollution resembles nuclear winter, say scientists” was written by Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 25th February 2014 16.00 UTC

Chinese scientists have warned that the country’s toxic air pollution is now so bad that it resembles a nuclear winter, slowing photosynthesis in plants – and potentially wreaking havoc on the country’s food supply.

Beijing and broad swaths of six northern provinces have spent the past week blanketed in a dense pea-soup smog that is not expected to abate until Thursday. Beijing’s concentration of PM 2.5 particles – those small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream – hit 505 micrograms per cubic metre on Tuesday night. The World Health Organisation recommends a safe level of 25.

The worsening air pollution has already exacted a significant economic toll, grounding flights, closing highways and keeping tourists at home. On Monday 11,200 people visited Beijing’s Forbidden City, about a quarter of the site’s average daily draw.

He Dongxian, an associate professor at China Agricultural University‘s College of Water Resources and Civil Engineering, said new research suggested that if the smog persists, Chinese agriculture will suffer conditions “somewhat similar to a nuclear winter”.

Air Pollution in China

Buildings in the central business district in Guangzhou seen through the thick haze. Photograph: Alex Lee/Reuters

She has demonstrated that air pollutants adhere to greenhouse surfaces, cutting the amount of light inside by about 50% and severely impeding photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert light into life-sustaining chemical energy.

She tested the hypothesis by growing one group of chilli and tomato seeds under artificial lab light, and another under a suburban Beijing greenhouse. In the lab, the seeds sprouted in 20 days; in the greenhouse, they took more than two months. “They will be lucky to live at all,” He told the South China Morning Post newspaper.

She warned that if smoggy conditions persist, the country’s agricultural production could be seriously affected. “Now almost every farm is caught in a smog panic,” she said.

Farmer Turning Soil in Tianying, China

A farmer turns soil to plant crops near a state-owned lead smelter in Tianying that has made much of the land uninhabitable. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters/Corbis

Early this month the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences claimed in a report that Beijing’s pollution made the city almost “uninhabitable for human beings“.

The Chinese government has repeatedly promised to address the problem, but enforcement remains patchy. In October, Beijing introduced a system of emergency measures if pollution levels remained hazardous for three days in a row, including closing schools, shutting some factories, and restricting the use of government cars.

 

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