Choking clouds of pollution blanketed northeast China yesterday, slashing visibility to a few meters, shutting schools and halting transport in scenes that underscored the nation’s environmental challenges.

Footage on state broadcaster CCTV from Harbin, a city famed for its annual ice festival, showed a screen full of charcoal-brown smog, with faint shapes and colors beneath hinting at roads, cars and traffic signals.

An index measuring PM2.5, or particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers, reached a record reading of 1,000 in some parts of Harbin, home to some 11 million people.

A level above 300 is considered hazardous, while the World Health Organization recommends a daily level of no more than 20.

The smog not only forced all primary and middle schools to suspend classes, but shut the airport, highways and some public bus routes, Xinhua news agency reported, blaming the emergency on the first day of the heating being turned on in the city for winter.

Visibility was reportedly reduced to 10 meters in some parts of the city.

The smog is expected to continue for the next 24 hours.

Drivers who jumped red lights because they could not see them “will not be penalized,” Xinhua quoted Harbin traffic official Xue Yuqing as saying.

Some users compared images of the pollution to scenes from a horror movie.

PM2.5 figures began to fall in the early evening but the overall air quality index — a different measure — was still being given as 500, the maximum level on the Chinese scale, and described as “beyond index.”

A top-level red alert for “thick smog or fog” was also issued for the entire province of Heilongjiang, which has Harbin as its capital, along with nearby Jilin and Liaoning provinces.

Highways were closed and flights disrupted in Jilin and Liaoning.

The meteorological station in Changchun issued a red alert at 2:45am yesterday. Many pedestrians and traffic police were wearing masks.

With visibility of less than 100 meters, all 22 flights at Changchun Longjia Airport were delayed.

Visibility was less than 500 meters in most of Jilin, Xinhua reported.

The bad weather also delayed trains and caused the closure of most of the highways in Jilin.

Key wordsw
东北dōnɡ běi:northeast China
雾霾wù mái:Super smog