Visitors take a walk during a polluted day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Jan. 15, 2015.
Kim Kyung-Hoon—Reuters
By Emily Rauhala / Beijing
January 15, 2015

Deep down, Beijing knew it was coming. But against all odds, the 21 million residents of China’s capital hoped that the cold chemical soup that passes for “air” might not be so bad this winter, sparing the city another airpocalypse.

But just two weeks into the year, Beijing is on “yellow alert” — the third highest in a four-tiered government pollution warning system. The U.S. embassy said its air-quality index, measuring PM2.5 particulates, had hit 545 (anything above 300 is considered hazardous). Visibility is expected to drop to 500 m. Not that anybody who has a choice will be looking outside.

This year’s first spell of particularly putrid air comes on the heels of news that the region’s air-pollution problem is, believe it or not, improving. Earlier this month, local authorities reported that average air pollution was actually down slightly in 2014.That’s good news, although the level of the most dangerous particulate matter was still more than three times the recommended limit.

Besides, the report is unlikely to cheer Beijing’s pollution-weary residents, who today took to social media to share pictures of the sullen sky:

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