Wuhan’s decade’s worst air pollution

Back in mid-June, Wuhan recorded the worst levels of air pollution in a decade. Media reports included pictures of Hubei’s capital shrouded in a greenish-yellow smog. Naturally, I decided that I had to make Wuhan one of the stops on my research trip. Despite (or in spite of) these horrendous air pollution days, I was surprised to see that Hubei province had one of the only Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPB) who had contact information listed directly on its website, and when contacted, they actually wrote me back and said they had forwarded my meeting request to the official responsible for data and monitoring in the EPB.

AOD for all of China from June 10-15, 2012.

I met with several members of Hubei’s provincial EPB, including the heads of the Total Emissions Control (重量出), the Project Approval department (审批出), and the head of data and monitoring (监测出) and asked all of them about the severe air pollution that led to several days Many outsiders wondered what the cause of Wuhan’s “beyond index” (over 500 on the Air Pollution Index, which is mostly unheard of and extremely hazardous to human health) air pollution days are.

AOD in Wuhan from June 10-15, alongside MODIS true-color composite showing dust, smoke, and fires (red dots) in Eastern China.

Some reports claimed that the poor air quality was the result of an industrial accident, although the officials I spoke with confirmed this report by the Changjiang Daily that said the extreme air pollution is due to agricultural waste and straw burning (秆燃烧) in the rural areas surrounding Wuhan. The satellite imagery from a MODIS true-color composite and MODIS’s Rapid Fire Response data on global fires shows numerous fires (the red dots) all over Eastern China. I also took a look at some of the Aerosol Optical Depth (correlated with both PM10 and PM2.5) data from June 10-15 and you can clearly see these values at the very high end of the spectrum (also in red), indicating likely serious PM2.5 and PM10 pollution during these days.

Hubei EPB officials seemed very pessimistic when I spoke to them about educating rural farmers or implementing waste to power incinerators to utilize some of the straw and agricultural biomass produced in the countryside. One official told me that they are considering government programs to subsidize farmers to not burn straw because awareness and education campaigns aren’t working. Even though major Chinese cities have done a lot to control air pollution emissions from factories and heavy-manufacturing, they still don’t have a handle on controlling agricultural burning, and are still trying to control transport and mobile emissions.  In fact, many of the worst air pollution days in major cities that have already moved out most of its heavy industry and coal-fired power plants (i.e. Beijing) still suffer transboundary effects of air particulates, dust, and smoke coming from the rural fringes and neighboring provinces.

Another major source of air pollution and dust in Wuhan is from heavy urban construction. The area of town I stayed in, which was close to Wuhan University, resembled an urban jigsaw of old and new buildings, scaffolding and plastic fences, and blocked roads, which made getting around the city extremely difficult. Here’s a picture of some demolished residential buildings I walked past on after touring Wuhan University.

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  • Joey Chiang

    I read your article of Wuhan’s decade’s worst air pollution, and I totally agree with you on two major sources of air pollution. In terms of heavy construction, I want to add more. Like the construction sites of subway system recently has a great impact on Wuhan’s air quality, especially in a windy typical winter day. As a Wuhanian, I’m current student in University of Washington studying civil and environmental engineering. I found your blog/articles really helpful.


  • Angel

    Thanks, Joey! Best of luck at the University of Washington in your studies.