Beijing welcomed 2017 from beneath a blanket of smog

Beijing residents rang in the New Year from deep inside a cloud of hazardous smog.

Air pollution in northern China was so heavy over the weekend that authorities on Sunday canceled dozens of flights at Beijing's main airport and suspended buses from the capital to neighboring cities, the airport said in a statement.

Just south of Beijing, in the metropolis of Tianjin, more than 200 flights were canceled at the local airport due to poor visibility and some bus routes and highways were closed due to the smog, according to the city government, Reuters reported.

Smog levels tend to spike in China's northern provinces during the chilly winter months. Residents use more coal-fired power to heat their frigid homes, filling the skies with small breathable particles — called particulate matter — that can damage people's lungs and hearts.

Large swaths of China's north were enshrouded in smog in mid-December, prompting officials to order hundreds of factories and schools to close. Hundreds of Beijing flights were canceled then and motorists in 23 cities were required to drive on alternating days to reduce emissions.

The region's latest round of air pollution began Dec. 30 and will likely persist through Jan. 5, Reuters reported.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which measures air quality near its compound, recorded concentrations of nearly 600 micrograms on Sunday afternoon.

The municipal government's own air quality index showed lower, yet still hazardous levels, peaking at just below the 500 mark, the South China Morning Post noted.

Greenpeace's team in East Asia estimated that around 460 million people in China were affected by hazardous air pollution in 2016.

Image: U.S. Department of State, mission China

But the environmental organization said it remained hopeful that Chinese leaders can curb the nation's crippling smog problem.

China, after all, is investing more money than any other nation in wind farms, solar plants and other renewable energy projects as it works to wean itself from highly polluting coal-fired power plants, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Regulators are also starting to crack down on pollution from the mammoth manufacturing sector.

"It's hard to remember when the scenes outside your window look like something out of Mad Max, but the situation is improving," Zhang Kai, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace, wrote in a Dec. 20 blog post.

Average concentrations of small breathable particles known as PM2.5 were higher than 500 micrograms per cubic metre in Beijing - 50 times higher than World Health Organization recommendations.