The second sandstorm to hit China in less than a fortnight has reversed the colours of the sky, turning the sun blue and the heavens yellow.
Beijing woke on Sunday morning shrouded in thick dust carrying extremely high levels of hazardous particles.
The sandstorm was fuelled by winds from drought-hit Mongolia and north-western China.
Visibility in the city was reduced, with the tops of some skyscrapers obscured by the sandstorm. Pedestrians were forced to cover their eyes as gusts of dust swept through the streets.
The China Meteorological Administration issued a yellow alert on Friday, warning that a sandstorm was spreading from Mongolia into northern Chinese provinces including Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Liaoning and Hebei, which surrounds Beijing.
As the sandstorm hit Beijing on Sunday morning, air pollution levels rose to a maximum level of 500, according to Beijing’s real time air quality index. Levels of the pollutant PM10, which can penetrate the lungs, passed 2,000 micrograms per cubic metre.
Levels of PM2.5, smaller particles that can penetrate the bloodstream, reached 462. The World Health Organization recommends average daily PM2.5 concentrations of just 25.
The storm caused havoc at airports in Inner Mongolia, with more than half of flights cancelled from the Baotou and Chifeng airports due to poor visibility, the South China Morning Post reported.
The China Meteorological Administration said the recent sandstorms originated from Mongolia, where relatively warmer temperatures this spring and reduced rain resulted in larger areas of bare earth.
“The dynamics for sandstorms and transmission of dust are good now,” Zhang Tao, chief forecaster for China’s Central Meteorological Observatory told state-run People’s Daily on Monday.
Zhang said north and northwestern China had less snow cover and rain this year and that temperatures since February had been higher, leading to further drying and dusty weather, kicked up by stronger than usual winds.
Average temperatures in Mongolia and northern China were about 6°C higher than normal in March, according to Zhang.
Northern China has long suffered sandstorms as deserts in the region spread further south, with deforestation intensifying the frequency during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward period from 1958 to 1961.
Large-scale deforestation is also considered a factor in China’s dust storms. Beijing has planted a “great green wall” of trees to trap incoming dust, as well as trying to create air corridors that channel the wind and allow sand and other pollutants to pass through more quickly.
Reuters contributed to this report