An enormous dust storm hit the city of Tokyo, Japan on Sunday, transforming what had been a lovely sunny day into a dark, gloomy one. It became difficult to see even a short distance as dark brown particles filled the air. Although the dust was blown from China, a meteorologist from the Japan Meteorological Agency said that it was a natural phenomenon unrelated to the severe air pollution that struck China's capital of Beijing last winter.
"A rapidly developing low pressure system in the north was moving down south. It was bringing a snow storm in the north, and strong winds in Tokyo and surrounding areas," the spokesperson said. A visitor on the scene said that the temperature dropped 10 degrees as the dust rolled in. Rain is expected to follow, which should clear the air. The map from NASA shows the path of dust forms that form in the Gobi desert and then move out into the Pacific, occasionally covering Japan.
The Japan Times said that the dust storms, which are most likely in late winter and early spring because of a combination of atmospheric conditions, are becoming a growing nuisance. Although they have always occurred, Japanese researchers have evidence that the number and severity of the storms has increased in the last 20 years. Overgrazing and overforesting expose the soil in central China, including the Gobi Desert. Winters are drier with less snowfall, allowing massive quantities of dust to be picked up and carried from China to Japan.
The situation in China, where the dust storm hit Beijing about 10 AM local time on Sunday, was even worse. An English language newspaper from China, South China Morning Post, said that the dust storm hit like a wall and that the local description of the Chinese idiom to denote the storm could be translated as "flying sand and rolling pebbles."
At least 41 flights were canceled, and many more had to be delayed. Beijing's highspeed rail service had to reduce speed on its trains.
In China, the situation is especially dire because the air pollution is already often at toxic levels due to smog caused by the growing use of coal, as well as inefficient vehicles. At times, the problem has been so bad that the authorities have banned the use of government vehicles on the streets. Barbecues and firecrackers may also soon be banned in Beijing to cut down on smoke.
Officials from Japan, China, and South Korea have planned a meeting in May to see if they can find a way to reduce the number and severity of these dust storms.
[map courtesy NASA]