Chinese authorities tell local weather forecasters to stop issuing smog alerts

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese authorities have asked an unnamed Chinese province to turn off its early warning alert system for smog to avoid mismatches between environment and meteorological authority forecasts, state media reported late on Tuesday. Nearly three years into a "war on pollution", large swathes of northern China have been engulfed in smog over the New Year, with dangerous air quality readings in major cities like Beijing, Tianjin and Xian forcing many people to stay in doors. Chinese authorities use a color-coded system of alerts to warn companies, schools and individuals of incoming smog, and to try to fight the haze by limiting production in polluting industries and banning older cars from city streets. The system's accuracy and fair application has become the focus of public discussion, and people regularly take to the internet to question discrepancies in alerts issued by different Chinese authorities in different locations. An image of a notice from the provincial capital's weather forecasting authorities tells county and city forecasters to immediately cease releasing early warnings for smog was widely shared on Weibo, a popular Chinese microblog, on Tuesday. The Paper, an online publication under the government-backed Shanghai United media Group, confirmed the notice with an unnamed official from China's National Meteorological Administration. The note was an internal memo, not for public release, the official told the paper, adding it was sent "because there has previously been incidents of the meteorological administration and the environmental protection ministry frequently releasing different information about the smog". The county and city authorities may continue to release fog alerts for low visibility, the notice said. The National Meteorological Administration declined to comment when telephoned by Reuters. The instruction has drawn ire from online commentators who ask why weather authorities are not allowed to post smog warnings. "The meteorological administration fought the environmental protection ministry and lost," the Nanjing Meteorological Institute said on its official Weibo account. "Thus, early warnings about smog, a kind of meteorological calamity, cannot be issued by the meteorological administration," it said. Earlier this month, Beijing issued its highest fog alert while only issuing the second highest level for smog, which raised questions from some living in the city. The episode of smog which blanketed cities, disrupting flights, port operations and schools, was caused by increased coal use for winter heating and unfavorable weather conditions, authorities said at the time. (Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Michael Perry)