The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Massive sandstorm blankets China in thick, orange muck

People cross a road during a sandstorm in Beijing on Monday. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

China’s worst sandstorm in a decade caused mass disruptions on Monday as swaths of the country were engulfed in a thick, orange haze of dust and sand, forcing authorities to cancel hundreds of flights, shutter roads and schools, and suspend outdoor activities.

In Beijing, poor visibility paralyzed traffic as residents posted photos of skyscrapers seemingly disappearing into the fog and compared images of the eerie haze to scenes in the dystopian 1982 film “Blade Runner.”

“It’s pretty bad. You can barely see 200 meters away from you,” said Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer for Greenpeace East Asia, based in Beijing.

More than 400 flights were canceled in Beijing, while several freeways in Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi and Xinjiang were closed. In Ningxia, among the worst-hit areas, residents said police had to direct traffic, which had slowed to a crawl. Officials in neighboring Mongolia, where the sandstorm emerged before sweeping across northern China, were searching for more than 80 herders who had gone missing.

The Chinese capital was shrouded in dust March 15, a result of heavy winds blowing in from the Gobi desert and parts of northwestern China. (Video: Reuters)

China’s National Meteorological Center said it expected 12 provinces and municipalities — an area covering about 160,000 square miles, about the size of California — to be affected by the storm.

The National Health Commission advised residents to stay indoors, seal windows and doors, and to use humidifiers and wet rags to deal with any dust. If residents must go outside, they should wear a mask, goggles, and a hat or scarf to protect their face.

“This is definitely not a normal weather system,” said Zhang Bihui, director of the Meteorological Center. “This is the most intense sandstorm our country has encountered in the last 10 years, which has also been the most wide-reaching,” the center said in a separate statement on its website.

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On Monday, Beijing and 23 other cities recorded “off the chart” levels of air pollution, according to state media. In Beijing, PM10, a measure of tiny particles in the air often associated with sandstorms, hit more than 9,000 micrograms per cubic meter, or 180 times the level deemed healthy by the World Health Organization. Some residents said they were wearing two masks even while indoors.

For years, spring would bring sandstorms from the Gobi Desert to Beijing, where residents would watch the sky turn yellow and orange and cover their faces to prevent dust flying into their mouths and eyes. Li, of Greenpeace, said that for the past two years, sandstorms, caused by weather patterns and desertification, have occurred outside of the normal season, in the summer as well as the fall.

“This raises questions,” Li said. “My anecdotal observation is the season seems to be prolonged. This is something that deserves our attention going forward, and my sense is that we can’t rule out another episode like this.”

Monday’s sandstorm comes after smog blanketed the capital during China’s annual legislative session. The key political event is usually accompanied by good air quality, as authorities temporarily shut factories and impose other pollution-control measures.

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The storm raises memories of several years ago when Beijing experienced frequent bouts of disastrous air quality, then known as “airpocalypse” — a time that pushed Chinese leaders to tackle air pollution. Since then, air quality has improved and other priorities such as the pandemic and restoring the economy have taken precedence, environmentalists say.

“In a way, it reminds everybody that there is still a lot of work to do on the environmental front,” Li said. “We are also standing at the beginning of a new decade. A lot of things have changed, and a lot of things have stayed the same.”

Lyric Li in Seoul and Pei Lin Wu in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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