Of all the weather conditions you may have imagined experiencing on a trip to East Asia, rolling storms of dust were probably not what immediately came to mind. They are infrequent; however, at some point in the year, each year in the 2010s, every place in China from Beijing to Hong Kong and even out over Taiwan experienced at least one such event. Korea sometimes gets nicked; Japan has been affected much less frequently thanks to its ocean shield.

Desertification - in particular the growth of the Gobi Desert in mid-northern China, stretching eastward ever closer to Beijing - is a major concern to the central government. Not only are there implications about being able to grow food for a big country, but the storms disrupt transportation and energy supplies as well. The areas most routinely affected have high concentrations of ethnic minorities - and when supply lines are cut to the big cities, sometimes tempers get short. If you’re trying to manage “social harmony”, if you want to keep the economy growing without supply shocks, if you want jobs in the cities and the countryside, and if you don’t want to have to import your food from foreign countries, then you have to solve this problem.

Another issue with these storms is that their tracks often take them over the key mining and extraction regions in the central part of the country, and then over some of the heaviest manufacturing corridors before moving into key population centers. Mining dust, salt, and industrial chemicals latch onto the grit in the air, compounding the health dangers.

How can you prepare?

Sandstorms usually happen in late Spring - mid Summer, and take some time to get going. They have more mass to move so the systems are slower than rain or wind. They usually begin in the far west - Xinjiang and Gansu provinces. Storms will be well-covered in the national media; in the weeks before your trip, check news sites like the China Daily several times.

If it looks like storms will be developing, pick up several packs of disposable face masks at your local pharmacy. Also pack a lightweight scarf or kerchief, and saline for your eyes and nose.

Photo by Australian  Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

When a storm arrives

Sometimes the storm arrives in shades, slowly materializing over several days. Other times it crashes in with lightning and rolling clouds. When it comes:

  • Stay inside as much as possible - your local agency contact will advise you if plans need to change.

  • Check your windows, and plug any gaps with towels.

  • Keep your electronics packed up as well as you can. Cameras, spinning hard drives, and touchscreens are especially susceptible to damage.

  • Stay clean - keep your eyes, ears, and nose clear with damp cloths and saline. Pay extra attention to your child, as younger tissues are more sensitive. Chemical toxicity is tied to how much time you’ve been in contact with a substance, so frequent cleaning - regardless of how dirty you may look - is the best policy.

  • Keep hydrated - and keep your water bottles tightly capped.

  • If you must go out, cover up with a light scarf and face mask.

With awareness, common-sense preparation, and keeping calm while hunkering down, you and your family will remain safe.