Mainland China has been in the grips of unprecedented drought and extensive sandstorms. What does this unusual meteorological event mean for the ongoing global climate crisis?
Experts say that the recent sandstorms that shrouded Beijing in a bizarre orange haze bring into stark relief the challenges China faces from rising temperatures induced by the climate crisis.
According to weather authorities, the widespread sandstorms that enshrouded the capital and spread as far as central China for several days in mid-March and again at the end of the month were brought on by lower-than-average snow cover and precipitation, as well as higher than normal temperatures and winds across Mongolia and northern China.
Even Chinese authorities who usually avoid going on record with anything close to an admission of human contribution to global climate change had this to say.
“Although the sandstorms were mainly caused by natural factors, they remind us there is only one Earth for mankind,” Liu Youbin, a spokesman for the environment ministry, told a press conference in Beijing.
“We must give great importance to ecological protection and construction and strengthen international cooperation,” he added.
While the sandstorms are indeed a natural occurrence, there are a number of human factors in play that can and do contribute to the intensity of the desert winds that cause the phenomena.
“In the places where the sand is originating from, both recent overgrazing and desertification have contributed to the desertification of the grasslands of Mongolia,” said Liu Junyan, a Beijing-based climate, and energy campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia.
Since 1978 China has been trying to mitigate steadily invading sands from the Gobi Desert region by planting a series of forest strips through its northern areas. This so-called “Great Green Wall” has been only marginally effective at reducing erosion and slowing desert expansion and does little or nothing to reduce high-altitude dust and sand that is blown in from afar.
“Hotter summers and shorter winters with less snowfall will likely lead to general declines in moisture levels of the soil [across the region], making it more prone to being scoured by winds and carried far away, and threatening China’s laudable tree-planting efforts,” said Darrin Magee, a professor of environmental studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the US and an expert on China’s water resources.
“Climate change will almost certainly exacerbate the sandstorm issue for north-east China,” he said.
For Magee, the impact of grazing from semi-nomadic herders in Inner Mongolia and Tibetan areas is more overblown than other industrial factors that lead to depleted groundwater and drying in the region.
“A few thousand herders practicing what herders have done for centuries are clearly not the problem,” he said. “Continued high rates of groundwater extraction for mining, industry, and agriculture in northern China don’t help, either, and unfortunately, I find it increasingly difficult to believe that climate change buffers, green belts, or inter-basin water transfers will really have an impact.”
The province where drought conditions and dust storms are now the most severe is Yunnan. According to studies of temperature increases across China, Yunnan is the province with the most climate-related warming over the past decade and has been affected by frequent droughts in recent years.