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A massive sandstorm hit Beijing, China, on March 25.
People wear protective masks as they commute during a sandstorm on March 15 in Beijing, China.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Worst sandstorm in a decade chokes Beijing

Sand and dust from the Gobi Desert are causing headaches for travelers on foot and by air.

Sand and dust from the Gobi Desert and parts of northwestern China have cast much of the Chinese capital city of Beijing in yellow smog — lowering air quality to hazardous levels, forcing hundreds of flights to be canceled, and complicating the morning route for millions of commuters in what officials say is the worst sandstorm in a decade.

Much of the sand swept in from a weekend sandstorm in Mongolia that left six dead and more than 80 reported missing. On Monday morning, the Chinese National Meteorological Center announced a yellow alert for 12 provinces and cities, asking residents to close windows and stay inside if possible. As many commuters made their way to work, Beijing’s air quality was rated at the “hazardous” 999 level — emergency conditions according to the air quality index. Up to 100 is considered acceptable.

Beijing has frequently been plagued with some of the worst smog in the world, due largely to the burning of coal, though the country has seen some improvement in its air quality in recent years as coal consumption has dropped and stricter emissions standards have been put in place.

A composite image showing a building pictured during the sandstorm (L) on March 15, and under clear sky (R) on March 16 in Beijing, China.
A composite image showing a building pictured during the sandstorm (L) on March 15, and under clear sky (R) on March 16 in Beijing, China.
VCG/VCG via Getty Images

But Monday’s sandstorm once again subjected Beijing’s residents to nearly unbreathable air. The air quality dropped to dangerous levels as tiny particles of air pollution hit 655 micrograms per cubic meter of air — according to World Health Organization guidelines, anything above 25 is unsafe. If breathed into the lungs, the particles can spread through the bloodstream to other organs, causing increased risk of cardiovascular or respiratory problems.

The sandstorm created transportation problems on land as visibility dropped to a little more than half a mile, leading to major traffic jams and forcing some drivers to drive with their lights on. The low visibility also caused headaches for those hoping to travel by air, as the Chinese state-run Global Times newspaper reported that 400 flights were canceled at two different Beijing airports.

Sand Storm in Beijing
A sandstorm turns the skies orange in Beijing on March 15.
Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Some Twitter users drew parallels between the scene in Beijing and the orange skies that surrounded much of the San Francisco Bay Area this past fall due to smoke from an unprecedented wildfire season.

Although sandstorms are common in Beijing at this time of year because of the city’s proximity to the Gobi Desert, which stretches from northern China into southern Mongolia, widespread deforestation and soil erosion have made the problem worse.

In response, China in 1978 began building the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest, also known as the Great Green Wall: a 3,000-mile expanse of 88 billion trees to be planted by thousands of volunteers over 50 years to protect northern China from the encroaching Gobi Desert.

On March 14, Reuters reported that China’s environment ministry expects the sandstorms to clear up by Wednesday or Thursday, shifting south toward the Yangtze River delta. But in the meantime, Monday’s sandstorms are the latest environmental setback plaguing China as the country’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2060 and align itself with the world’s major economies has been criticized for its slow pace.

For some activists, the link between China’s current environmental problem and the need to commit to faster change to limit global warming is clearer than the air surrounding Beijing.

On March 14, Li Shuo, Beijing-based policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia, tweeted, “Beijing is what an ecological crisis looks like.” While noting the rapid deterioration of air quality, Li added, “It’s hard to claim we are moving forward when you can’t see in front.”

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