Unhealthy orange

Gigantic sandstorm engulfs China’s capital city


Beijing on Monday

On Monday morning Beijingers awoke to dark orange skies and appalling air quality as a huge sandstorm rolled into China’s capital.

Skyscrapers disappeared from view, planes were grounded and residents watched in horror as PM10 (large particulate matter) hit 9,500 micrograms per cubic metre in dust readings. PM10 scores in Beijing – a city not known for its clean air – doesn’t typically go above 100.

The last storm of a comparable size was in 2006 when 300,000 tonnes of sand were dropped on the city in a 24-hour period.

“Previous dust storms measuring a few thousand were considered big,” Ma Jun, director of the Public and Environmental Research Centre, told China Newsweek. “But almost breaking 10,000 is really rare,” he added.

So why did this storm suddenly appear after decades of efforts to reduce the frequency and severity of the largest shachenbao?

There are two main ways to answer that question. The official response from Beijing is it was “a natural disaster”. This winter was a particularly dry one across Mongolia and northwestern China, meaning these typically arid regions, including the Gobi Desert, got even less rain than usual. In addition, temperatures have been unusually high in the early spring, drying the landscape out further. Add strong winds and you have all the ingredients for a “super” sandstorm.

All of this was much discussed in the Chinese media. But another area getting mention was the origins of the dust storm in Mongolia.

“Why did this monstrous Mongolian storm appear?” asked one headline in ThePaper.cn.

“Goats eat up as much as 70% of Mongolia’s prairie land, causing the country of cashmere to create a huge dust storm,” Tencent News commented.

On Tuesday, South Korean media started to suggest that the storm started to gather in China, however, making the origins of the storm a hot topic online. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian felt compelled to comment, reiterating that “China was only one stop on the storm’s route”.

Mongolia certainly experienced terrible sandstorms of its own in the two days prior to the dark orange curtain descending on Beijing. But satellite images also show particulate matter building up inside northwestern China in the days running up to the worst of the influx. One satellite feed shows sand sweeping in from Chinese parts of the Gobi Desert, before blowing into Beijing from the south. Another shows particulate matter accumulating on the border between Mongolia and the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, before heading for Beijing.

In echoes of the early stages of Covid-19 when Beijing pushed back angrily against the concept of the ‘Wuhan flu’, neither country wanted to be linked directly to the origins of the storm. Mongolia implied the sandstorm was Chinese in source, while the Chinese did the opposite. The South Koreans – who took a dusting themselves – generally declared the sand to be Chinese, much to the fury of Chinese netizens.

The Chinese government has spent decades trying to halt the spread of the Gobi Desert by planting trees and increasing irrigation in semi-desertified areas. The scheme has been celebrated as largely successful in reducing the number of sandstorms dramatically since the 1950s – when Beijing once recorded as many as 26 in a single year. But the green belt is under constant threat as recent deforestation of a layer of defensive forest in Gansu indicates. Satellite images of the forest reserve seem to show that most of its 13 square kilometres has been turned over to grape production and that thousands of government-subsidised trees have been felled.

Experts warn that sandstorms will also become more frequent as a result of global warming and that even a “great green belt” can do little to protect China’s capital from storms of Monday’s size.

Fortunately, the sand left Beijing almost as fast as it had rolled in. But that wasn’t before netizens were delivering dozens of memes comparing the skies to scenes from the apocalyptic 1982 film Blade Runner. Others referenced China’s current mission to Mars and the studies it promised. “Why bother? You can get the exact same atmosphere here,” one quipped.

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