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True Grit

The high number of sandstorms in northern China has led to renewed calls for international efforts to mitigate them at source, and a new multi-pronged approach on solutions for the most affected areas

By Xie Ying , Peng Danni Updated Jul.1

The Lama Temple is engulfed in a sandstorm, Beijing, April 10, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

On the morning of April 19, Gao Rui, a 34-year-old Beijinger got up to see the sky over Beijing was a murky yellow, obscuring the view from her apartment and gale-force winds rattling her windows.  

“Another sandstorm,” she told her husband.  

The day before, Beijing Meteorological Service upped its alert for wind to blue, indicating gale force winds of seven or above. It came as forecast, roiling sand and dust all over the city. Originating from the deserts of China’s northern neighbor Mongolia, the sandstorm spread to 18 Chinese cities, with PM10 (coarse particulate matter of 10 micro-grams per cubic meter) readings soaring to over 2,000 and visibility of less than 500 meters.  

It was the capital’s 10th sandstorm since the beginning of 2023.  

Gao said that before this spring, she had thought sandstorms were a thing of the past.  

“I’ve switched on the air purifier again. I hadn’t used it for several years,” she told NewsChina. 

PM10 originates from human activities and natural causes, including fossil fuel emissions, construction dust, wood-burning stoves, sand and dust storms, wildfires and pollen.  

China has put huge efforts into sandstorm control and prevention for four decades. According to a 2020 report by the China Meteorological Administration, in the last 20 years, the incidence of sandstorms in March and April, the most common time for them, has reduced to 7.8 on average. Data from the National Forestry and Grassland Administration shows that the number of spring sandstorms from March to May dropped from an average of 21 in the 1960s to eight in the 2010s, with the number of sandstorm days dropping by 1.63 every 10 years over the decades. 

While lauding the efforts, experts said that sandstorms cannot be totally eradicated, and emphasized that improved control and prevention needs more multi-dimensional measures and closer international cooperation, especially in climate change and economic development. 

Mongolia’s Predicament
The world’s sandstorms mainly derive from desert regions in Africa and Asia. The three leading Asian sources are Mongolia, the Taklamakan Desert and neighboring areas in northwestern China, and the Badain Jaran Desert areas in the west of China’s’ Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.  

According to Chinese satellite observations, Mongolia is the major source of the latest wave of sandstorms in northern China.  

At a press conference in March, Liu Bingjiang, the atmospheric environment director of China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, attributed the increase in sandstorms to desertification in Mongolia, as well as decreasing precipitation and poor afforestation. He said that unseasonally high temperatures in southern Mongolia and northwestern China in March, about 5-8 C degrees higher than average, caused the permafrost sandy soil layer to melt faster, exposing more sand and dust, and that low precipitation has expanded the area of bare land with no vegetation. Strong cold air currents over Mongolia pick up particulates and carry them over northern China and beyond to Japan and South Korea.  

The Gobi Desert, the fifth largest in the world at 1.3 million square kilometers, is a rocky cold desert in the shadow of the Himalayan Plateau. In the Mongolian sense, the word gobi refers to general arid areas in the Mongolian Plateau, which does include areas of vegetation and is not necessarily sandy.  

Official Mongolian data confirms that in the last decade, the number of sandstorms in Mongolia’s gobi and desert regions quadrupled compared to that in the 1960s.  

Altangerel Enkhbat, head of the climate change department at Mongolia’s natural environment and tourism ministry, said that Mongolia is among the countries under the most pressure from climate change and that the incidence of sandstorms is growing in his country, the Xinhua News Agency reported in March, adding that most of the sandstorms are caused by natural conditions and climate change.  

Some Chinese researchers agree that natural conditions are mostly to blame. Zhang Xiaoye, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Science, told NewsChina that southern Mongolia is covered by gobi deserts, but has a very small population, so he does not think the sandstorms are primarily caused by human activities.  

A thesis published by an international team of meteorologists in Science in November 2020 found that East Asia, geologically centered on Mongolia, has seen an unprecedented climate phenomenon characterized by heat waves and drought. This is beyond the normal range of climate change and has caused a vicious cycle: dry soil hastened the temperature rise, which in turn promotes increased water loss from the soil.  

In the last eight decades, Mongolia’s average temperature has risen by 2.25 C, much higher than the global average. At the same time, precipitation dropped by 7-8 percent. The last 10 years saw Mongolia’s hottest period, during which 1,244 rivers and lakes dried up or were cut off.  

However, Li Shengyu, a senior engineer at the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, who works on a Sino-Mongolia project to prevent desertification on grasslands, believes human activities do play a role in the increased incidence of sandstorms. His investigation revealed a grassland belt in the northern areas of southern Mongolia which is heavily degraded and causing the desertification to move northward.  

“This has increased the desert areas in Mongolia. It is a new problem,” he warned.  

As the world’s second-biggest inland country with the lowest population density, Mongolia relies on grazing, but the IMF warned in 2019 that spurred by the soaring price of wool worldwide, Mongolia is increasingly threatened by overgrazing.  

Li Shengyu told NewsChina that Mongolians like to keep goats which crop the grass to the roots. This has caused great harm to the grasslands. Furthermore, as the pasture lands in Mongolia are mostly government-owned, herders do not consider protecting them is a priority, unlike private pastures.  
Another destroyer, Li said, is mining. Dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of the mining industry,” Mongolia enjoyed fast economic growth in the early 2000s due to an influx of investment from foreign miners. In 2012, Mongolia ranked among middle-income countries and by 2019, its production value of mining reportedly accounted for 23.8 percent of its total GDP, with exports of mining products taking up 70 percent of its total export.  

“Many of the mining centers are in the southern gobi deserts and are open-pit. Miners need to remove the surface soil layer to work, which is bad for the environment,” Li said. “When it’s dry or windy, dust from the digging is swept into the atmosphere. Mining has also degraded groundwater and rivers, as well as the grasslands,” he added. 

A New Cycle? 
A recent study by the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences indicates that there are five main tracks for windblown sandstorms, and the northwestern one, which begins in Mongolia and China’s desert regions and goes southeast, is the biggest and most serious. These sandstorms account for 38.5 percent of the total on average.  

“China has more than 1.7 million square kilometers of desert in the north and Mongolia has more than 300,000 square meters of gobi and deserts. It means China is one of the worst places for sandstorms,” Zhang Xiaoye said.  

Despite a general reduction in the sandstorm frequency nationwide, China’s National Climate Center observed a growth in the number of sandstorms between 2018 and 2022 compared to 2013 and 2017. In March 2021, Beijing was hit by the strongest sandstorm in a decade. Readings for PM10 soared to 6,450 within an hour, and the worst-hit districts saw readings above 8,000.  

“We saw such obvious reductions in the incidence of sandstorms that many people thought they were gone for good, but they’ve returned in the last two years. We’re in a period of flux,” a meteorological researcher who asked for anonymity told NewsChina.  

None of the interviewed experts were prepared to postulate whether China has entered a new active period of sandstorms. “There is a cyclical change in our meteorological system, but such change is not that clear and we can’t predict a tendency based on short-term information,” Wu Chenglai, an associate researcher at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told NewsChina.  

From the angle of monsoon activity, China may have entered a new active period of sandstorms, Zhang Xiaoye said. Northern China has a continental winter monsoon climate affected by high pressure over Siberia and Central Asia, which means cold, dry winters from September to April, different from the wet and humid south.  

Zhang said the winter monsoon has a big cycle of 50-70 years, with smaller cycles during that time. In China, sandstorms were frequent in the 1970s and went down since then. In 2002, Beijing suffered a huge sandstorm, which Zhang believes conformed to a smaller cycle within the larger one. If the last big cycle was around 50 years, the more frequent sandstorm activity since 2020 could signal a new cycle.  

Wu agrees. “The higher incidence since 2018 is probably a cyclic change, though we still need more studies to prove it,” he said, adding that the source areas of sandstorms are vast and differ greatly between regions, so studies should be based on specific conditions of different regions. 

Against the Grain 
China has invested a lot in sand control and prevention. In 1978, China launched the Great Green Wall project, a belt of afforestation in Northwest China, North China and Northeast China where China’s eight big deserts, four sand zones and vast areas of gobi are located, with a total area of 1.49 million square meters, 85 percent of China’s total arid areas. The project is expected to finish in 2050, when the shelterbelts of trees will total some 4,500 kilometers.  

Other ecological projects followed, including returning arable land to forest, protecting natural forests and controlling sand sources in Beijing and Tianjin. In 2001, the Law of Sand Control and Prevention was enacted.  

By the end of 2021, China had restored 18.8 million hectares of desertified land, enclosed another 1.77 million hectares that are too degraded to restore, and established 98 national desert parks. China’s desertified land per capita is declining by an average of 667,000 hectares every year. A 2019 investigation by NASA showed that China has contributed 25 percent of the world’s new leaf lands from 2000 to 2017, although this includes forests and agricultural land.  

Experts agreed that China works extremely hard on anti-desertification. “Among countries badly affected by sandstorms, China should be recognized for its efforts on combating desertification,” Li said.  

But many interviewed experts argued that more cautious analysis is needed to ascertain to what extent sand control and prevention has helped reduce sandstorm incidence.  

According to Huo Wen, a researcher at the Institute of Desert Meteorology in Urumqi, man-made afforestation is helpful to prevent the spread of desertification, improve soil and reduce the wind velocity near the ground by about 70 percent based on his studies. But when the wind is strong enough to suck up surface particulates several thousand meters high, afforestation projects are of little use in preventing sandstorms.  

By studying the causes and drivers of sandstorms, Wu Chenglai’s team found that a weaker wind velocity contributed 46 percent to reducing sandstorms and the other 54 percent is attributed to wet soil and new trees and grass, including man-made and natural greening. His team concluded that sand prevention projects have far less influence on sandstorms than natural elements.  

Experts emphasize that it is impossible for humans to eliminate sandstorms and that sand control efforts should be more scientific and multi-dimensional, rather than merely planting trees and grass.  

“Generally speaking, our sand control work focuses on the edge of deserts and areas close to rivers – perhaps only 6-7 percent of China’s total deserts. Most of our deserts are in super-acidic areas with an annual precipitation of several dozens of millimeters, and human efforts won’t have much influence,” Zhang said.  

Xue Xian, a researcher at the Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources, warned in a recent interview with social media account Zhishifenzi that the wrong type of greening may have the opposite effect.  

A sand control researcher who asked for anonymity told NewsChina that any afforestation project in acidic areas must not be too large for the water resources available.  

“We may have over-emphasized increasing the area of anti-sand afforestation and even made it an administrative target,” he said, “But projects that are too large will lead to waste and are too hard to maintain... Our focus should be on existing ecological projects, but [the government] doesn’t prioritize them and gives little input,” he added.  

Li Shengyu said that the expansion of inappropriate greening and farm projects in arid areas will take up more scarce water resources, which causes native plants to degrade even faster.  

That is why the Chinese Academy of Sciences is conducting research into more saline-resistant and drought-enduring plants, Huo said.  

“Sandstorm research has shifted from scientific understanding to control and prevention, especially forecasting and early warning, when efforts to prevent desertification are limited,” Zhang said. 

International Cooperation 
There is more international cooperation on desertification. In 2002, China, Japan, South Korea and Mongolia established a joint system on prevention and control of sandstorms. Since 2013, China has assisted Mongolia with training staff.  

But since climate change is exerting an ever greater influence, sand prevention and control should no longer be merely planting trees. 

Experts warned of abnormal temperature rises in Mongolia in the last two years and that a tipping point could be approaching. They point out that sandstorms are not always negative, since it could bring necessary fertilizer to marine plankton, and to a certain extent, can prevent solar radiation from reaching the Earth’s surface, much like ash from a volcano, by reflecting it back to the atmosphere.  

The IMF flagged the importance of preventing desertification as it will have negative economic effects, especially if Mongolia continues to rely on grazing and mining. The IMF has suggested Mongolia’s neighbors can play a role in trade-related measures against sandstorms, such as helping Mongolia expand overseas markets for meats to increase Mongolia’s income and help them decrease pasture size. The IMF also proposed a principle of moral supply. For example, the Wildlife Conservation Society based in New York has appealed to increase the sustainability of wool production in order to reduce the burden on Mongolia’s grassland.  

“Sandstorms are not only an environmental issue, but also an economic development issue. Mongolia developed its economy through grazing and mining which is a problem of economic structure, so the solution may lie in the integrated economic development of the whole of East Asia,” Wei Ke, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences told news portal The Paper in mid-April.  

In a 2022 statement from China and Mongolia, China agreed to implement joint projects with Mongolia by connecting the green development and climate change in the Belt and Road Initiative with Mongolia’s program to plant one billion trees by 2030. This includes economic cooperation in the mining industry and grassland restoration. On May 1, 2023, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang held talks in Beijing with visiting Mongolian Foreign Minister Battsetseg Batmunkh. They agreed to strengthen cooperation on sandstorm prevention and control, and jointly promote sustainable development.  

Experts said that whether or not the sandstorms will reduce or increase in the future depends on whether on the desertification situation in Mongolia, whether China will build better and more scientific afforestation programs in its desert regions and whether global warming will be effectively eased.