Spring Sandstorms Add to China’s Bad Air Misery

This week the Chinese capital has been hit with an air quality disaster of a more ancient vintage: a sandstorm blowing out of the north.

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Feng Li / Getty Images

A general view of the skyscrapers in the sandstorm on Feb. 28, 2013 in Beijing, China

Beijing, a city already notorious for its smog, has seen some of the worst air quality in memory over the first weeks of 2013. Much of the blame has rightly been aimed at coal burning, the rising number of vehicles, the low quality of fuel standards and industrial pollution that blows in from surrounding regions. But this week the Chinese capital has been hit with an air quality disaster of a more ancient vintage: a sandstorm blowing out of the north.

On Wednesday afternoon I sat in an office building on the city’s east side and could see across the city of some 20 million to the Fragrant Hills to the west, the sort of clarity that only happens a few times a year. Then, within the space of an hour, visibility was back to the Beijing standard of a few blocks. (Here are some photo galleries documenting the dramatic changes.) On Wednesday morning the concentration of particles smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter soared briefly on the city’s west side to nearly 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter. By comparison, the World Health Organization guideline for 24-hour mean levels of PM 10 is 50 micrograms. The city’s Environmental Protection Bureau advised residents to stay inside if possible.

(MORE: Beijing Chokes on Record Pollution, and Even the Government Admits There’s a Problem)

The sandstorm hit Beijing just as the city was preparing for the annual National People’s Congress. Yao Ming, who is in town as a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body that meets ahead of the NPC, was photographed grimacing at the sky as he left his hotel this morning. The government will undoubtedly face new calls for a solution to China’s air pollution woes as the NPC meets next week. The issue, which has long been downplayed, has simmered online recently as Chinese microblog users have posted air pollution data online, first from a meter run by the U.S. Embassy that measures finer, more dangerous PM 2.5 particles, and now from the local environmental protection bureaus in Beijing and other cities that have begun posting detailed PM 2.5 readings.

For much of the winter the winds blowing from the north have offered a rare respite from pollution, as cold air from less polluted Mongolia has flushed out the toxic haze in the Chinese capital. But as spring comes, snow and ice melt leaving vast stretches of desert and dry, sandy earth exposed. Then the wind brings a stinging grit, and a reminder that as China tries to clean up the pollution caused by untrammeled development, it also struggles to contain the mess it has faced for centuries.

PHOTOS: Sandstorms Hit Beijing in 2010

3 comments
jdyer2
jdyer2 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I'd like to see this story a little more in-depth, and answer the question as to whether Beijing has always had sandstorms, or is this a recent phenomenon due to desertification, drought or something else.

LuwianMemories
LuwianMemories like.author.displayName 1 Like

@jdyer2 

I believe that desertification is one problem. Beijing lies near the Gobi, so there have historically been sandstorms that have struck Beijing. However, they have become more frequent in recent times due to desertification and increasing water scarcity. Desertification was greatly exacerbated by Mao's Great Leap Forward, during which farmers were sent out to farm the steppes of Inner Mongolia, which resulted in destruction of the grass cover that stabilized the soil in that region. Now, China is fighting back with a massive reforestation program, planting trees and bushes resistant to drought and able to stabilize easily eroded soil such as those in Inner Mongolia. It has also devoted much time, effort, and money into research on combating desertification.