Beijing Chokes on Worst Dust Storm in a Decade

Beijing Chokes on Worst Dust Storm in a Decade

People wait to cross an intersection amid a sandstorm during the morning rush hour in Beijing, Monday, March 15, 2021.
People wait to cross an intersection amid a sandstorm during the morning rush hour in Beijing, Monday, March 15, 2021.
Photo: Mark Schiefelbein (AP)

Beijing is currently hidden under a thick, yellow blanket of noxious smog. The dust originated in a Gobi Desert sandstorm, which has killed at least six people in Mongolia. Now, northwest winds have blown the dust through across Inner Mongolia into the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Shanxi, and Hebei.

The golden haze has created surreal scenes in Beijing that feel like something out of Blade Runner 2049. But it’s also caused an air quality emergency and hampered visibility as the region suffers through one of its worst dust storms in a decade. Here are some bizarre scenes from around the city—and the impacts all the dust and pollution is having on residents.

Staff writer, Earther

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Toxic Air

Toxic Air

BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 15: Buildings are seen during a sandstorm on March 15, 2021 in Beijing, China.
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 15: Buildings are seen during a sandstorm on March 15, 2021 in Beijing, China.
Photo: Getty (Getty Images)

Levels of fine particulate matter—tiny air pollution particles that fill the lungs and can get into the bloodstream—topped 600 micrograms throughout the city and reached a 24-hour average of 200 before Beijing’s midday. The World Health Organization says average daily concentrations above 25 micrograms are a concern.

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Like, Really Toxic

Like, Really Toxic

Buildings are seen in the central business district of Beijing during a sandstorm on March 15, 2021.
Buildings are seen in the central business district of Beijing during a sandstorm on March 15, 2021.
Photo: Leo Ramirez (Getty Images)

Beijing’s realtime air quality index also showed a reading of 999 on Monday, causing authorities to advise residents to stay indoors. For context, measures over 100 are deemed unhealthy, and 300 is considered “hazardous.” The poor air wasn’t just limited to a few parts of the city either. The surrounding towns and cities, including the port city of Tianjin, all saw air quality index readings of 999 on Monday. The dangerous air quality stretched all the way to Qingdao, another coastal city located 413 miles (665 kilometers) away.

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Low Visibility

Low Visibility

A crow flies over the Forbidden City during a sandstorm in Beijing on March 15, 2021.
A crow flies over the Forbidden City during a sandstorm in Beijing on March 15, 2021.
Photo: Wang Zhao (Getty Images)

The dust is also making it impossible to see, hanging so thick in the air that in some places, visibility is down to 1,640 feet (500 meters). Here’s a crow flying over the barely-visible Forbidden City in Beijing. Can’t imagine that bird had a very easy flight. Beyond crows, though, the impact is also real on people who are trying to navigate the haze.

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Cancelled Flights and Traffic Jams

Cancelled Flights and Traffic Jams

A man walks on a pedestrian overbridge during a sandstorm in Beijing as traffic crawls in the background on March 15, 2021.
A man walks on a pedestrian overbridge during a sandstorm in Beijing as traffic crawls in the background on March 15, 2021.
Photo: Greg Baker/AFP (Getty Images)

Speaking of trouble with flying, according to the Chinese news site Jiemian, more than 400 flights were cancelled at Beijing airports as of 9:30 a.m. local time on Monday.

Traffic on the ground also struggled in the dust. Cars were driving with headlights on during the day, and there have been widespread reports of traffic jams in and around the city as drivers inch through the low-visibility conditions.

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Making a Bad Situation Worse

Making a Bad Situation Worse

People wearing protective masks ride their bikes along a street during a sandstorm on March 15, 2021 in Beijing, China. The Chinese capital and the northern parts of the country was hit with a sandstorm on Monday, sending air quality indexes of PM 2.5 and PM 10 ratings into the thousands and cancelling flights.
People wearing protective masks ride their bikes along a street during a sandstorm on March 15, 2021 in Beijing, China. The Chinese capital and the northern parts of the country was hit with a sandstorm on Monday, sending air quality indexes of PM 2.5 and PM 10 ratings into the thousands and cancelling flights.
Photo: Getty (Getty Images)

The sandstorm has been particularly devastating because it’s adding to China’s already bad air pollution. In winter, the country sees particularly high levels of smog because cities burn coal to generate heat. Right now, 31 cities in the country are under red alert—the highest pollution warning possible—because of their air quality index readings.

The impacts of air pollution are manifold, and none of them are good. A report published last year found that air pollution is the “greatest risk to human health,” and can reduce life expectancy by two years on average. Air pollution is also making covid-19 deadlier, with each microgram of pollution increasing the risk of mortality from the disease that’s ravaged the world by 11%. That makes the situation in Beijing particularly dangerous even as vaccines continue to roll out.

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Fixing Air Pollution

Fixing Air Pollution

A woman crosses a bridge at Houhai lake during a sandstorm in Beijing on March 15, 2021.
A woman crosses a bridge at Houhai lake during a sandstorm in Beijing on March 15, 2021.
Photo: Noel Celis (Getty Images)

In September, China made a promise to bring national carbon emissions to a peak by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Since the country saw toxic pollution spike before the pandemic due to a surge in coal use, it makes sense to remain skeptical until we see some real action. But if the country really sticks to its carbon phase-out plan, it could come with the massive benefit of reducing air pollution, too.

In addition, the country is also trying to get a handle on its dust problems, which is driven by increasing desertification that has affected 400 million people. There are a number of factors that have led to a rise in China’s deserts, including deforestation and land use change that has depleted water availability and increased erosion. In response, the country has attempted to build a “great green wall” of trees to stop the growing Gobi desert in its tracks and reduce dust storms like the one hitting Beijing this week.

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Staff writer, Earther

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