The world’s sandstorms mainly derive from desert regions in Africa and Asia. The three leading Asian sources are Mongolia, the Taklamakan Desert and neighboring areas in northwestern China, and the Badain Jaran Desert areas in the west of China’s’ Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
According to Chinese satellite observations, Mongolia is the major source of the latest wave of sandstorms in northern China.
At a press conference in March, Liu Bingjiang, the atmospheric environment director of China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, attributed the increase in sandstorms to desertification in Mongolia, as well as decreasing precipitation and poor afforestation. He said that unseasonally high temperatures in southern Mongolia and northwestern China in March, about 5-8 C degrees higher than average, caused the permafrost sandy soil layer to melt faster, exposing more sand and dust, and that low precipitation has expanded the area of bare land with no vegetation. Strong cold air currents over Mongolia pick up particulates and carry them over northern China and beyond to Japan and South Korea.
The Gobi Desert, the fifth largest in the world at 1.3 million square kilometers, is a rocky cold desert in the shadow of the Himalayan Plateau. In the Mongolian sense, the word gobi refers to general arid areas in the Mongolian Plateau, which does include areas of vegetation and is not necessarily sandy.
Official Mongolian data confirms that in the last decade, the number of sandstorms in Mongolia’s gobi and desert regions quadrupled compared to that in the 1960s.
Altangerel Enkhbat, head of the climate change department at Mongolia’s natural environment and tourism ministry, said that Mongolia is among the countries under the most pressure from climate change and that the incidence of sandstorms is growing in his country, the Xinhua News Agency reported in March, adding that most of the sandstorms are caused by natural conditions and climate change.
Some Chinese researchers agree that natural conditions are mostly to blame. Zhang Xiaoye, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Science, told NewsChina that southern Mongolia is covered by gobi deserts, but has a very small population, so he does not think the sandstorms are primarily caused by human activities.
A thesis published by an international team of meteorologists in Science in November 2020 found that East Asia, geologically centered on Mongolia, has seen an unprecedented climate phenomenon characterized by heat waves and drought. This is beyond the normal range of climate change and has caused a vicious cycle: dry soil hastened the temperature rise, which in turn promotes increased water loss from the soil.
In the last eight decades, Mongolia’s average temperature has risen by 2.25 C, much higher than the global average. At the same time, precipitation dropped by 7-8 percent. The last 10 years saw Mongolia’s hottest period, during which 1,244 rivers and lakes dried up or were cut off.
However, Li Shengyu, a senior engineer at the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, who works on a Sino-Mongolia project to prevent desertification on grasslands, believes human activities do play a role in the increased incidence of sandstorms. His investigation revealed a grassland belt in the northern areas of southern Mongolia which is heavily degraded and causing the desertification to move northward.
“This has increased the desert areas in Mongolia. It is a new problem,” he warned.
As the world’s second-biggest inland country with the lowest population density, Mongolia relies on grazing, but the IMF warned in 2019 that spurred by the soaring price of wool worldwide, Mongolia is increasingly threatened by overgrazing.
Li Shengyu told NewsChina that Mongolians like to keep goats which crop the grass to the roots. This has caused great harm to the grasslands. Furthermore, as the pasture lands in Mongolia are mostly government-owned, herders do not consider protecting them is a priority, unlike private pastures.
Another destroyer, Li said, is mining. Dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of the mining industry,” Mongolia enjoyed fast economic growth in the early 2000s due to an influx of investment from foreign miners. In 2012, Mongolia ranked among middle-income countries and by 2019, its production value of mining reportedly accounted for 23.8 percent of its total GDP, with exports of mining products taking up 70 percent of its total export.
“Many of the mining centers are in the southern gobi deserts and are open-pit. Miners need to remove the surface soil layer to work, which is bad for the environment,” Li said. “When it’s dry or windy, dust from the digging is swept into the atmosphere. Mining has also degraded groundwater and rivers, as well as the grasslands,” he added.