Aug 10 Rain showers bring relief from heat but not haze

Aug. 10, 2008, 11:18 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The rain came and the heat went, but the haze remained Sunday at the Beijing Olympics.

Temperatures averaged a cooler 26 degrees Celsius (79 degrees Fahrenheit) - down from highs of 34C and 93F over the past two days - and officials were hopeful the dirty-white blanket that has enveloped the city would give way to cleaner, clearer skies.

"I think the blue skies will come, especially after today's rain," said Wang Wei, executive vice president of the Beijing organizing committee. "I have my fingers crossed."

The rain was predicted to last over the next few days, and officials hoped that would wash away the pollutants that have been accumulating in the windless, muggy weather of recent days. The city's air monitors again showed moderate pollution, with an official index of 82 - similar to the previous day, but calculated using the 24 hours before noon Sunday. Monday's figures are expected to show a decline.

An independent sampling conducted by The Associated Press around the Olympic Green, the main sports thoroughfare, showed an unusually high amount of particulate matter combined with very low visibility.

"Today is raining and tomorrow will have rain, too. That will help reduce the air pollution level. We believe the current air flow will be helpful in the dispersion of pollutants in the air," said Wang Jianjie, deputy director of the Beijing Meteorological Bureau.

China has been holding its breath over the pollution that shrouded Beijing and threatened to overshadow its Olympic debut. The city's pollution levels - typically at least two to three times higher than what the World Health Organization recommends for healthy air - has been the focus of concerns by games organizers and athletes alike.

Despite employing large-scale measures to improve air quality through factory closures and traffic restrictions, the impact has been far less than what Beijing had hoped for.

The problem is that half of the pollution over the city comes from neighboring provinces, said Kenneth Rahn, an atmospheric chemist and professor emeritus at the University of Rhode Island, who has done research on meteorological data in China.

"You can control Beijing as much as you like, but you're not going to see much of an effect," Rahn said.

The skies haven't been clear since last weekend. The city's location, in a basin ringed by mountains, has only exacerbated conditions. Scientists say only a major weather front - bringing wind and rain - can help sweep away pollution.

"They better pray to the Mongolian rain gods," Rahn said.

But while rain might help the air, it could mar China's long-awaited debut on the world stage.

Meterological officials claimed Sunday that they had succeeded in warding off thundershowers from the opening ceremony by firing more than 1,000 "rain-dispersal" rockets in the largest operation of its kind in the country.

"On the day of opening ceremonies, we had rain clouds in the southwest and northwest. They were moving closer to the Bird's Nest, and there was a high probability of rain," said Wang Jianjie, deputy director of the Beijing Meteorological Bureau. "Had we failed, we would surely have had precipitation."

China has been experimenting with weather modification for decades, using a technique known as cloud-seeding to induce rainfall, though international scientists say there has never been proof that such methods produce results.

A total of 1,110 rockets loaded with silver iodide were launched from the Beijing area and Hebei province, said Zhang Qiang, deputy director of Beijing's Artificial Weather Modification Office. The idea was to "seed" the clouds to induce rain before it reached the National Stadium, and Chinese officials said it worked.

Friday night was remarkably humid - spectators were drenched with sweat as they watched in the stands - but no rain marred the four-hour opening ceremony. Precipitation was reported in areas west and south of Beijing.

And Sunday's weather?

"Today's rain is natural," Wang said.

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