China: Reflections on meteorology
and society after 20 years
Traveling back to China last September to receive the Friendship Award (see “On the Web” below) caused me to reflect on the tremendous changes since I first visited there in May 1982, just a decade after President Nixon “opened” China with his dramatic visit in 1972. Many of these changes have been very positive; others have been less so. These two decades have witnessed perhaps the most rapid rate of urban development of any country in history, as many of China’s large cities have been transformed from poor, relatively primitive towns to modern, first-world cities.
People along the highway from the airport to Lanzhou admire Polaroid photos of them taken by Rick Anthes (right) in June 1982.
In the early 1980s people from the United States generally visited China as part of official delegations, invited and closely orchestrated and supervised by the Chinese. Several teams of meteorologists had already visited, beginning with a delegation led by the American Meteorological Society in 1974 (a fascinating account of this historic visit is published in the November 1974 issue of the Bulletin of the AMS).
Our delegation arrived in 1982 for the First Sino-American Workshop on Mountain Meteorology. We were led by Elmar Reiter, professor at Colorado State University (CSU). Other members of the delegation and their 1982 affiliations included Bruce Albrecht (Pennsylvania State University), John Wyngaard and Doug Lilly (NCAR), the late John Hovermale (National Meteorological Center), William Cotton (CSU), Ronald Smith (Yale University), Lawrence Gates (Oregon State University)
and Isidoro Orlanski (NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory).
Our visit started in Beijing and proceeded to Lanzhou, Xian, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Canton, with stops at academic and government meteorological institutions and some sightseeing in each city. After this three-week tour I visited the Royal Hong Kong Observatory and, in Taipei, the Central Weather Bureau, National Taiwan University, and National Central University.
Our Beijing visit began with a series of scientific presentations at the Friendship Hotel’s Science Meeting Hall, where most workshops involving foreigners were held at this time. There was no air conditioning, and Beijing was suffering one of its hottest and dustiest Mays in history, with daytime temperatures in the 100s Fahrenheit. With 12 hours of jet lag, it was difficult staying awake in the dark, hot lecture hall. I gave a talk on a 24-hour simulation of the 12 July 1981 Sichuan flooding event using the MM2 model, a copy of which I gave to the Chinese on this trip. (MM2 is now MM5, version 5 of the Penn State/NCAR mesoscale model.) We alternated talks, with roughly two Chinese papers for each one of ours. One Chinese scientist gave his 30-minute talk in near-perfect English. After his talk we asked questions in English and found that he neither spoke nor understood any English whatsoever—he had memorized his entire talk phonetically!
We visited many of the meteorological institutes and facilities in Beijing, including the Institute for Atmospheric Physics, Peking University, and the Central Meteorological Bureau (CMB, now the China Meteorological Administration). Most of the technology was primitive by our standards, although the CMB was relatively well supported by the government and was showing signs of modernization (they had an up-to-date C-band radar, for example). However, there were only a few word-processing machines and a single, relatively slow mainframe computer. Weather maps were machine-plotted on very beautiful colored maps and then analyzed by hand by dozens of meteorologists. Data from China and elsewhere came in by teletype machines and facsimiles. Elevators were few and far between at the CMB, and we spent a lot of time climbing stairs in the heat to get as high as the tenth floor.
Blue suits and bicycles
In the early 1980s, few Americans visited China, which was just coming out of the extreme regime of Mao Zedong (who, incidentally, was an enthusiastic supporter of meteorology because of the frequent meteorological disasters in China). People dressed very conservatively; women wore the neatly tailored plain blue “Mao suits” almost exclusively, although a few brave young ones were starting to wear dresses with some colors other than blue.
Like all foreign visitors, we were watched very closely—every time one of us would strike out on our own, we would be tracked down and herded back into the group. However, occasionally we could slip away, and these excursions were worth it. One morning, for example, Bill Cotton and I took off from the Friendship Hotel before breakfast and before our Chinese colleagues arrived for the day. We jogged through the morning traffic and met many curious Beijingers along the way, some of whom joined us in our jog.
I visited China almost on an annual basis following 1982, and on each visit I noticed major changes in atmospheric sciences and a modernization of urban life. The blue Mao suits quickly gave way to colorful, stylish dresses and fashionable jewelry from Hong Kong and Europe. Construction was everywhere. By 1988, I discovered that the Bejing Meteorological Bureau had interactive computers and analysis programs that exceeded the capability then in the United States!
One of my many memorable impressions of Beijing in 1982 was the large, wide roads with almost no cars on them. Most people were far too poor to own cars, so they drove or pedaled anything they could find, or just walked. A variety of vehicles—dominated in number by bicycles but including farm tractors, huge blue trucks, motorized plows pulling wagons, buses, and carts of all types drawn by animals and people—shared the roads with human and animal pedestrians.
One of the many unconventional vehicles on a Beijing street in May 1982.
The bicycles were especially impressive, with thousands of them flowing smoothly in formation, rain or shine, through the wide streets, sometimes twenty or thirty abreast. I distinctly remember wondering how this city could possibly support so many people if they were all in automobiles. Today, 21 years later, I know the answer: Many Chinese in Beijing now have cars, and the streets are choked with them. Bicycles and other forms of transportation have been forced to the back roads or eliminated altogether.
The nation’s rapid economic and technological development has been costly in other ways, including air pollution and China’s increasing contribution to global warming. According to The New York Times (22 October 2003), China’s rapid economic growth has placed it second behind the United States in the emission of greenhouse gases. China is now the world’s largest coal consumer and the world’s fastest-growing importer of oil. China’s increase in greenhouse gas emissions from 2000 to 2030 is expected to nearly equal the increase in emissions from the rest of the industrialized world. In short, China is a major factor in global society.
Putting a face to these astounding figures, the Times noted a 53-year-old woman who reported that for more than half her life (up to roughly the time I first visited China), the only electrical appliance in her home was a light bulb. She bought a black-and-white television set in 1984 and a refrigerator and an air conditioner over the next few years. Now her house has two color TVs, an electric rice cooker, a radio, and many electric lights.
Per capita, China’s greenhouse-gas emissions are still only about one-eighth of those in the United States. However, China’s rapid industrialization and potential for continued rapid growth paint a complex and pessimistic picture of future global warming. Its exemption from the Kyoto Protocol, and the U.S. refusal to ratify this treaty, mean that the two largest greenhouse gas producers in the world are likely to increase their emissions significantly over the next 25 years. While the U.S. avoids taking any meaningful actions to reduce its consumption, China is trying to catch up. Imagine a population of 1.25 billion people with the consumption habits of the people of the United States.
Just about the only thing that has not changed in China is the friendliness of its people. Starting with that first trip almost a quarter of a century ago, I formed relationships with friends and colleagues that have lasted for many years. Visiting China now is as easy as visiting most other foreign countries, and keeping in touch and collaborating is far easier with the Internet than it was when months of planning and diplomacy were required for a single visit. The aspect of my connections with my Chinese friends that is most satisfying to me is the deep mutual trust that has developed between us.
CMB director general Zou Jing-Meng (left) locks arms with Rick Anthes in a toast to friendship during a May 1982 dinner.