China’s capital woke to a yellow sky on Monday as the largest sandstorm the country has seen in a decade sparked new health fears.
The thick brown dust shrouded Beijing’s landmarks, including the Forbidden City, and downtown skyscrapers temporarily disappeared from view, surrounded by clouds of sand.
Visibility in the capital has been reduced to less than 1,000 meters, the English-language Chinese news agency CGTN reported. Residents who dared venture outside had to wear improvised headgear to protect their faces.
Traffic has been confused and more than 400 flights from the capital’s two main airports have been canceled, The Associated Press reported.
The Beijing Meteorological Observatory warned that the elderly, children and people with respiratory diseases should stay indoors. City residents should wear masks, gauze, or other dustproof products when going out and wash their faces when they return.
Schools were also ordered to suspend all outdoor activities.
“It looks like the end of the world,” Beijing-based Flora Zou, 25, who works in fashion, told Reuters. “I really, really don’t want to be outside in this weather.”
China’s National Meteorological Center issued a yellow alert Monday morning, saying sand and dust from neighboring Mongolia would affect 12 provinces and regions in the north, from Xinjiang in the far northwest to Heilongjiang in the northeast and Beijing.
“This is the most intense sandstorm in China in the past 10 years, and the area hit by the sandstorm is also the largest in the past decade,” the center said in a memo on its website.
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The sandstorms should move south towards the Yangtze Delta and become clear by Wednesday, the Chinese Ministry of Environment said.
Beijing is typically exposed to sandstorms in March and April due to its proximity to the massive Gobi Desert, as well as deforestation and soil erosion across northern China.
China has tried to reforest and restore the region’s ecology to limit how much sand is blown into the capital.
Beijing has planted what is known as a “great green wall” of trees to trap the incoming dust and is trying to create air corridors that canalize the wind and allow sand and other pollutants to pass faster.
The city and the surrounding regions have also suffered from relatively high levels of pollution in recent weeks.
Yuliya Talmazan reported from London, Nicole Yang from Hong Kong.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed.