Shanghai’s Beautifully Deceptive Blue Sky

A blue sky overlooking Shanghai’s West Nanjing Road on January 19

After what feels like weeks of rain and the thickening encroachment of grey, choking smog that usually signals the onslaught of winter in China, today Shanghai has been rewarded with a practically azure-colored sky.

This is a shot of West Nanjing Road, a popular pedestrian street leading to People’s Square, the center of downtown Shanghai. From this angle the World Financial Center ( commonly known among expats here as the “bottle-cap opener building”) and the Shanghai Tower, Pudong’s defining – and tallest – skyscraper. Both of these buildings are part of the city’s now iconic skyline on The Bund, one of Shanghai’s prime tourist attractions.

I typically gauge the city’s level of smog by the visibility of those skyscrapers. If I can clearly see the buildings, as I can today, I figure it’s a good day. There are some days – yesterday morning, in fact – when the air pollution is so thick that both of the buildings are almost completely obscured. On those days, I have to squint to make out any faded sign of the mammoth Shanghai Tower.

It’s a beautiful day today. But, is it a clean day? My Air Quality Index application tells me I shouldn’t trust my eyes. Despite the lovely facade, there is still apparently an unhealthy level of PM 2.5 in the air today. As I’ve already written, particulate matter 2.5 – a byproduct of exhaust fumes and burning fossil fuels – has been linked with various health disorders, including respiratory diseases and blood clots.

An AQI under 50 is categorized as a “healthy” level of PM 2.5. Anything above 100 is considered “unhealthy.” The most concerning category, between 301-500, is “hazardous.”

I’m pretty sure my entire winter in Jinan, Shandong last year consisted of “hazardous” days. Those aren’t as common in Shanghai.


Blue skies can be deceptive.




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