Climate crisis

A virtual tour of Beijing's Mars-like sandstorms

The science behind sandstorm pollution, explained.

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Beijing made headlines this week, as skies turned dark orange — echoing a scene out of a post-apocalyptic movie.

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The air quality index (AQI) reached a shocking 999 rating on Monday, indicating hazardous levels of air pollution. Good AQI typically falls between 0 and 50.

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Although Beijing is known for its high levels of air pollution, the air quality hasn’t been this bad since 2017.

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The culprit: dust whipped up from a sandstorm from the Gobi Desert.

It’s the worst sandstorm in China in a decade.

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Sandstorms happen when strong winds trap large amounts of sand and dust in the air. Increasing desertification — partly due to human activity — contributes to sandstorms.

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Previously, scientists linked air pollution from Asian sandstorms to increased hospital admissions for heart disease, asthma, and cerebrovascular disease. This affects the blood supply to the brain.

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But dust from sandstorms doesn’t just affect Asia. More than 180 million tons of dust leave North Africa each year, carried by seasonal winds.

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Known as “calima,” these warm winds regularly carry dust from the Sahara to Spain. In the past, this weather phenomenon created an apocalyptic sandstorm that blanketed the Canary Islands and exacerbated wildfires in 2020.

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A study from Harvard and the University of Maine found that global warming is driving more intense dust storms in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

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The effects of sandstorm pollution on our health are still being studied, but as climate change makes extreme weather events more likely, public health crises will only increase.

Read more stories on the climate crisis here.

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