Beijing and a wide area of China’s north were enveloped on Monday in the worst sandstorm in a decade, leading hundreds of flights to be cancelled.
Skyscrapers in the center of Beijing appeared to drop from sight amid the dust and sand, while traffic snarled and more than 400 flights out of the capital’s two main airports were cancelled before midday.
Such storms used to occur regularly in the springtime as sand from western deserts blew eastwards, affecting areas as far as northern Japan.
Massive planting of trees and bushes in fragile areas has reduced the storms’ intensity, but the expansion of cities and industries has put constant pressure on the environment throughout China.
The National Meteorological Centre predicted the sand and dust would affect 12 provinces and regions from Xinjiang in the far north-west to Heilongjiang in the north-east and the eastern coastal port city of Tianjin.
“This is the most intense sandstorm weather our country has seen in 10 years, as well as it covering the broadest area,” the centre said in a post on its website.
It was not clear if the storm was related to a recent general decline in air quality despite efforts to end Beijing’s choking smog.
The ruling Communist Party has pledged to reduce carbon emissions per unit of economic output by 18% over the next five years.
Environmentalists say China needs to do more to reduce dependency on coal that has made it the world’s biggest emitter of climate changing gasses.