Eight major sandstorms in the past three months have hit Mongolia and China, darkening skies and causing breathing difficulty while killing people and livestock. The storms are centered in the border area at the Gobi desert, but the sand has reached Beijing. In northern China, air pollution levels reached 20 times the healthy limit. In southern Mongolia, the storms have killed an estimated 1.6 million livestock, NPR reports. When the sand blows into Beijing, people try to stay indoors. But that's not always possible for herders and their livestock in southern Mongolia. During a 20-hour storm in March, herders put some of their sheep and goats in a barn, but they were killed when the roof collapsed from the weight of the sand. Animals that survived outside were left blinded by the sand.
Sandstorms happen every year in the region, but not like these, which are the worst in a decade, per NPR. In fact, China was caught by surprise, per Euronews, because it expected its reforestation work on its side of the border to reduce the number and intensity of the sandstorms. The devastation this year is attributed to several factors, including the effects of climate change. An especially dry year in Mongolia left more loose sand than usual. The Gobi is growing, expanding to the north at 75 miles per year. Temperatures have risen. Larger herds are wiping out pastureland; the number of goats has gone from 5 million to 27 million in the past 30 years. "If no measures are taken now, Mongolian will be all desert in 30 to 40 years," a researcher said. "There will be many more sandstorms in the future." (Read more sandstorm stories.)