Beijing: Onslaught of The Mongolian Cyclone

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Hei Jianjun / ChinaFotoPress

Beijingers walk at Tiananmen Square during a strong a sandstorm that hit the Chinese capital on March 20, 2010

Beijing residents awakened Monday to skies the eerie yellow color of a street lamp. It was the second time in three days that the Chinese capital had been scoured by sandstorms that have hit 16 provinces across west, central and north China, affecting nearly one-fifth of the country's 1.3 billion people, according to the state-run Xinhua News Service.

Tiananmen Square was filled with choking whirlwinds, cars and bicycles were coated in a thin layer of wheat-colored dust, flights were delayed and on March 20 the air pollution index reached 500 — the worst level possible — due to the high level of particulates in the air. A day later, several cities in eastern China including Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou and Hangzhou reported similarly bad air quality. Hong Kong and Taiwan also reported dangerously high levels of pollution.

"What has lead to the floating dust in Beijing is what we call a 'Mongolian cyclone,' a whirlwind caused by low atmospheric pressure," says Zhang Mingying, a senior engineer at the Beijing Meteorology Bureau. "The center of the Mongolian cyclone is usually 800 to 1,000 kilometers to the northwest of Beijing, a vast desert region covering southern Mongolia and northwestern Inner Mongolia. The cyclone draws sand and dust particles into high altitudes and together with a strong north wind, it brings sand grains to nearby areas, and smaller dust particles further south."

Springtime sandstorms are common in China, as Siberian winds blow dust and sand off the Gobi desert across east Asia — sometimes as far as North America. But the size of the storm that began Saturday has surpassed what China's capital has seen recently. The storms began in desert areas of the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia and the adjacent central Asian nation of Mongolia, which is suffering from the combination of a dry summer followed by a brutally cold winter. The UN has set aside $3.7 million in aid to help Mongolia recover from the extreme conditions, which have left thousands short of food and fuel and killed more than 2 million sheep and other livestock.

In China, the annual sandstorms have been exacerbated by desertification. Agricultural expansion, overgrazing and population growth starting in the 1950s strained already dry regions in western China. By 2004, 27% of the country's landmass suffered from some degree of desertification, according to the Chinese Meteorological Administration. China has invested heavily in planting trees and small shrubs over former croplands to prevent the spread of arid land eastward. The government has reported the rate of desertification has slowed after 2000, but says climate change and other environmental pressures means more than 186,000 square miles (300,000 sq km) of land are still at risk.

While northern China has been battered by sandstorms this spring, traditionally soggier south China has been battling drought. Premier Wen Jiabao spent the weekend touring drough-stricken villages in Yunnan province, where many areas have received half the usual rainfall. Sixteen million people in the region are now suffering drinking water shortages, according to state media. The Dai ethnic group, which is concentrated near the Burmese border in western Yunnan, has even been encouraged to cut back on the amount of water used during the upcoming Water Splashing Festival it celebrates each year to mark the arrival of spring.

With reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing