China's capital and a wide swath of the country's north were enveloped Monday in the worst sandstorm in a decade, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights, per the AP. Skyscrapers in the center of Beijing appeared to drop from sight amid the dust and sand. Traffic was snarled and more than 400 flights out of the capital's two main airports were canceled amid high winds and low visibility. The National Meteorological Center said Monday's storm had developed in the Gobi Desert in the Inner Mongolia region, where schools had been advised to close and bus service added to reduce residents' exposure to the harsh conditions. Such storms used to occur regularly in the springtime as sand from western deserts blew eastward, affecting areas as far as northern Japan.
Massive planting of trees and bushes in fragile areas has reduced the effects on other parts of the country in recent years, but the expansion of cities and industries, along with strip mining and overgrazing, has put constant pressure on the environment throughout China. With its mix of desert and grassy steppe, Inner Mongolia is particularly prone to extreme weather resulting from resource exploitation. "This is the most intense sandstorm weather our country has seen in 10 years, as well as it covering the broadest area," the center said in a post on its website. (Read more sandstorm stories.)