BEIJING • A major dust storm engulfed northern China and Beijing yesterday, prompting the authorities to cancel dozens of flights and urge children and the elderly to stay indoors.
Buildings were shrouded by the greyish haze in the capital, while residents who ventured out covered their mouths and noses with masks and bandanas.
At least 48 flights were cancelled, including six international routes in Asia and Russia, according to the Beijing Capital Airport's website.
The storms occur regularly in spring, when winds from China's north-west blow loose, dry soil and sand from the Gobi Desert into the city, coating urban areas with a layer of yellow grime.
Visibility in Beijing was as low as 1km yesterday morning, according to state media.
The official People's Daily said the worst of the storm will be concentrated on a remote area along the Mongolian border, but that Beijing and locations as far away as the remote north-east of China will be affected for at least 24 hours.
Levels of large particulate matter, known as PM10, hovered at around 900 micrograms per cubic m in the late morning, according to air quality monitoring website aqicn.org, or nearly 20 times the World Health Organisation's (WHO) recommended daily maximum exposure of 50 mcg per cubic m.
The PM10 level went down to about 700 mcg per cubic m yesterday afternoon.
Official data from the Beijing government showed average readings of small breathable particles known as PM2.5, a major component of China's air quality index, rose to more than 620 mcg per cubic m in parts of the city yesterday morning, though these dropped slightly later in the day. WHO's recommended daily maximum exposure to PM2.5 is 25 mcg per cubic m.
The city government said air quality would improve later today as a high-pressure system moved in. State television said old people and children should stay inside to avoid the worst effects.
The dusty pollution also enveloped vast regions of northern China, including Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Hebei, Jilin and Heilongjiang, according to the China Meteorological Administration.
The dust storm underlines the environmental problems China faces, and adds to concerns over choking smog from coal-powered power plants and factories that also periodically covers much of the north.
The government has spent billions of dollars on projects to rein in the spread of deserts, planting trees on empty land and trying to protect what plant cover remains in marginal areas.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG