In the most severe storms, residents say that “It’s like it is raining sand”. An early warning system sounds to alert residents of the danger as people stay indoors and airports are shut down. Much of the sand originates in the northern and the western deserts of China – the Gobi, the Takla Makan, the Ordos. But once airborne the sands do not respect national boundaries. They increasingly fall on Korea and Japan. The sands even cross the Pacific Ocean to fall on the United States. The environmental disaster in China is reaching global proportions.
The sandstorms are awesome. In China’s Raging Sands we see walls of sand a kilometre high stretching from horizon to horizon. The sandstorms are also lethal. They have the force of a mid-sized earthquake – and unlike earthquakes they last not for minutes but for days. Forty-seven schoolchildren died in a single storm. Visibility in these tidal waves of sand can drop to less than a metre – and temperatures have dropped as low as minus 55 degrees Celsius. The storms can move at the speed of a freight train, overwhelming everything in their path. And when the winds die they deposit a layer of sand that suffocates the countryside.
The deserts of China are increasing at a furious rate. In China’s Raging Sands we see how fierce winds blow the sands of the old deserts. Worse yet, we see new deserts being created. Desertification – the turning of once fertile land into desert – is a major problem. Global warming and environmental damage put a third of the country at risk. Just 70 km north of Beijing the Great Wall was built to keep invaders out of China. Today, desert sands reach that wall. At the current rate of expansion Beijing will be surrounded by sand before the end of the century.
China is now engaged in a desperate race to stop the sands. Scientific research and government policy are converging to address the problem. But for herdsmen who have seen their entire flocks wiped out or for farmers who have seen two-thirds of their village disappear, a solution cannot be found soon enough.