Thursday April 6 8:06 AM ET

Dust Storm Blasts Beijing


AP Photo
By ELAINE KURTENBACH, Associated Press Writer
BEIJING (AP) - Fierce winds laden with desert dust buffeted Beijing today in what local reports said was the worst such storm in 10 years, delaying flights, pushing grit through windows and doors, and sending people running for cover.
Meteorologists said the storm, one of several unusually heavy ones this spring, was caused by dust rolling in from the northwest combined with severe winds in the Beijing region.
The day started out calmly enough, but by midmorning yellowish clouds of dust began to fill the sky. Residents ran for shelter as gusts of up to 44 mph scoured the streets and darkened the skies.
No one could fully escape the grit. President Jiang Zemin, meeting with U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley, said he'd asked meteorologists what was going on.
``They said this has something to do with the so-called El Nino,'' Jiang said, referring to the periodic warming of the surface waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The warming trend can affect the weather worldwide and has been blamed for prolonged drought in northern China and Mongolia.
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(Requires Yahoo! Messenger) With buildings barely visible across city streets at times, dozens of flights were delayed at Beijing's Capital Airport. At least 40 flights due to land there were rerouted to Tianjin Airport, about an hour to the southeast.
In the past month five dust storms have hit Beijing, as severe water shortages and sparse vegetation in the arid deserts and grasslands upwind from the city have left soil loose and prone to wind erosion.
``The vegetation in the northwest is sparse and the climate is rather dry. Those conditions make it more likely for dust storms to develop,'' said Lei Zhenfa, director of the Beijing Meteorological Bureau.
China has planted millions of acres of forests, surrounding Beijing with greenbelts that have helped reduce the number of such storms.
Lei said the situation has improved over the past few decades, with the average number of dust storms falling in the 1980s and 1990s. Still, each year nearly one million tons of Gobi desert dust blow into Beijing, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Deserts have been expanding rapidly in China because of drought and sinking underground water tables depleted by industrial and agricultural use and population growth.
Last year, unusually mild winds left Beijing, already one of the world's smoggiest cities, shrouded in pollution. That prompted the city government to crack down on heavily polluting vehicles and coal-fired stoves.
This year, the weather has swung to the opposite extreme.
Lei said forecasts predicted an even stronger dust storm would hit the city on Sunday.
Scientists say the dust contains aluminum, zinc and iron, which irritate the eyes and respiratory system. It has been blamed for health problems in South Korea, across the Yellow Sea, and has been detected as far away as Hawaii.
In a meeting with China early this year to discuss the problem, Japan and South Korea promised to offer technical or financial assistance for a 50-year project to plant trees in the Gobi desert.