Beijing was shrouded in thick brown dust that sent pollution levels soaring on Monday morning, as heavy winds brought in sand from Inner Mongolia and other parts of northwestern China.
The China Meteorological Administration announced a yellow alert on Monday morning, saying that the sandstorms had spread from Inner Mongolia into the provinces of Gansu, Shanxi and Hebei, which surrounds Beijing.
City residents used goggles, masks and hair nets to protect themselves from the choking air, with landmarks including the Forbidden City and the distinctive headquarters of state broadcaster CCTV obscured behind yellow smog.
The city government ordered all schools to cancel outside sport and events and advised those with respiratory diseases to stay inside.
Beijing’s official air quality index reached a maximum level of 500 on Monday morning, with floating particles known as PM10 reaching more than 8,100 micrograms per cubic metre in six parts of the city, according to the state-run tabloid Global Times. Visibility was reduced to between 300 (984 feet) and 800 metres (2,624 feet), state media reported.
Readings of PM2.5, smaller particles that infiltrate the lungs, were also approaching 300 micrograms per cubic metre, far higher than China’s standard of 35 micrograms.
Discussion of the pollution lit up online discussions – with more than 54 million views on social media platform Weibo by Monday morning. Some users said the air was reminiscent of the apocalyptic science fiction film Interstellar.
“This orange red sandstorm makes it looks like the end of the world,” said one Weibo user.
Beijing faces regular sandstorms in March and April as a result of its proximity to the enormous Gobi desert as well as deforestation throughout northern China.
Beijing and surrounding regions have been suffering from relatively high levels of pollution in recent weeks, with the city also shrouded in smog during the opening of parliament starting on March 5.