Terrible sandstorms like the one in Beijing can shift 360,000 tons of sand and dust

Sandy, baby.
Sandy, baby.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
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A massive sandstorm swept across China’s capital Beijing on Thursday (May 4) and continued into Friday, shrouding the city with yellow sand and dust. Dozens of northern cities (link in Chinese) are also affected, but conditions are expected to improve by Friday evening.

Beijing is prone to sandstorms during spring and summer, and while it appears to be seeing a decreasing number of sandstorms (link in Chinese) over the years, this is an extremely powerful one. Levels of PM10, a tiny inhalable particle linked to respiratory disease, reached above 2,000 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing, 40 times the maximum 24-hour mean recommended by the World Health Organization. (On a more typical day of bad pollution, Beijing is at about six times the recommended level of PM10.)

As in the past, weather conditions in the deserts of Mongolia and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia are affecting people hundreds of kilometers away—Beijing is around 400 kilometers (248 miles) from Inner Mongolia and 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from Mongolia. High winds in those areas can lead to a stunning quantity of sand blowing across northern China.

On April 17, 2015, one of the most severe sandstorms to strike Beijing brought some 300,000 metric tons (330,000 tons) of sand and dust (link in Chinese) into the city, according to Zhang Mingying, spokesperson for the city’s meteorological department. In 2006 (link in Chinese), Beijing saw some 360,000 tons of sand and dust arrive in the air, while in 2010 (link in Chinese) some 165,000 tons dispersed through the city, according to state news agency Xinhua (link in Chinese).

The weather office hasn’t announced the volume of grit brought by this sandstorm yet, but the city’s murky yellow shade over the last day suggests the number could be high. The city’s 21 million residents dealt with the horrible conditions in their usual way: with face masks.