Beijing warns residents to avoid outdoor activity as a massive sandstorm covers the capital in yellow dust

March 15, 2021, 8:33 AM UTC

People in Beijing awoke to yellow skies Monday as the Chinese capital was engulfed by a sandstorm blowing in from the Gobi Desert, some 600 miles away.

The China Meteorological Administration called Monday’s sandstorm the worst in a decade. Flights were grounded in China’s Inner Mongolia province while Mongolia, which shares the Gobi Desert with China, has reported six dead and over 400 people missing.

Visibility in Beijing has been reduced to 1,000 meters by the sandstorm gripping the city, shrouding the central business district in dust.
LEO RAMIREZ—AFP/Getty Images

The Beijing meteorological agency warned residents on Monday to avoid outdoor activity as it raised the city to a yellow alert, with Beijing’s air quality index recording dire conditions.

The density of airborne dust particles known as PM10 hit over 8,000 micrograms per cubic meter—160 times what the World Health Organization considers an acceptable level. But life in the capital continued much as normal, with residents continuing to work.

The vast complex of the capital’s imperial palace, the Forbidden City, is lost in the storm.
WANG ZHAO—AFP/Getty Images

Sandstorms are common in Beijing, coming every year in spring as winds blow from the desert to the sea. Industrialization, urbanization, and intensive agriculture since the 1950s have caused extensive deforestation in arid North China and increased the frequency of sandstorms.

In 1978, Beijing embarked on a vast reforestation initiative to reinstall this natural line of defense and combat creeping desertification. Dubbed the Great Green Wall, China has planted over 66 billion trees as part of the initiative—although a lack of aftercare or strategic planning means many trees die before reaching maturity.

Commuters traveled to work Monday despite the dangerous air quality.
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The Great Green Wall is scheduled for completion in 2050, and in 2000, Beijing launched a regional sub-initiative to combat the sandstorms called the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Sandstorm Source Control Project.

According to CGTN, the project has increased foliage coverage in the “sand source control area”—which stretches across six provinces, from Tianjin on the eastern seaboard to Inner Mongolia in China’s central north—from 10% to 19% and reduced the number of sandstorms in Beijing from 13 a year in 2000 to around three in 2020. But Monday’s dust cloud shows the desert winds remain a threat—and one that will be exacerbated by global warming, as increased temperatures hasten desertification.

Accustomed to heavy pollution, cyclists continue to ride throughout the sandstorm.
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Zhao Yingmin, vice minister of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, said Monday, “Today’s sandstorm is mainly due to natural factors, but it also shows that our ecological environment is still very fragile.”