China's 'Great Shutdown' Is Scientific Gold

| Fri Aug. 8, 2008 9:26 PM EDT

AsianBrownClouda.jpg What happens when you turn off the pollution? Well the Beijing Olympics are giving scientists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe how the atmosphere responds when a heavily populated region seriously curbs everyday industrial emissions.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography is flying unmanned aerial vehicle to measure smog and its effects on weather during China's 'Great Shutdown.' The flights start at Cheju Island in South Korea, 725 miles southeast of Beijing, and directly in the path of Chinese pollution plumes.

Data from the flights, combined with satellite and ground observations, are tracking dust, soot and other aerosols leaking out of China in atmospheric brown clouds.

Chinese officials have reduced industrial activity by as much as 30 percent and mandated cuts in automobile use by half, to safeguard the health of competing athletes.

Too bad most of Beijing's air quality doesn't have much of anything to do with its own emissions but comes from its own heavily-polluted provinces to the south. Too bad China doesn't make the Great Shutdown permanent. Too bad the whole world doesn't follow. Too bad the athletes' health is more important than everyone else's.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.