The “airpocalypse” was blamed on the start of the winter heating season Sunday in a region that still uses coal-powered plants and the burning of fields at the end of the harvest. The lack of wind and high humidity also contributed to the severe pollution, meteorologists told the state media.
In Harbin, a city of 12 million world-famous for its wintertime ice festival, the smog was so thick that visibility was reduced to 20 yards. Municipal bus drivers lost their way in the haze. In one case, a morning rush hour bus that left at 5:30 wandered around for three hours before the driver found the route.
Expressways around the city were closed and the pedestrians who braved the outdoors mostly wore face masks.
The emergency was a stark reminder of the high costs of China’s breakneck economic development. Beijing occasionally experiences days during which pollution veers into hazardous levels, but it is rare in the far north of the country.
Doctors warned that residents could experience respiratory symptoms in coming days.
Officials said that PM 2.5, the fine particulate matter that is most destructive to the lungs, was over 500 micrograms per cubic meter in most of the city Tuesday and in some downtown locations reached up to 1,000. A reading over 300 is considered hazardous by the World Health Organization.
“I’m in Harbin holding your hand, but I can’t see your face,” wrote one microblogger on the popular Sina.com website.