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Tuesday, 27 February, 2001, 20:11 GMT
China on sandstorm alert
Camel in Gobi Desert
Desert sandstorms spread south from Gobi
The Gobi Desert is creeping south and China's heartlands are being swept by increasingly regular sandstorms.

Worried by this pattern, the Chinese Government has spent a year working towards better long-range forecasts of sandstorms.

Chinese cyclist in sandstorm
Cyclist battles sandstorm head on
Chinese TV will broadcast sandstorm forecasts every evening from next month. This is part of a new national campaign to raise public awareness of these environmental catastrophes.

The forecasts also serve to help people plan for a couple of days of disruption and air scarcely fit to breathe.

Sandstorms have become an increasingly regular feature of life in north China, and beyond.

The Chinese media reported 13 sandstorms in the north last spring.

Sandstorms spread south

But just last week, sand particles from a northern China sandstorm reached as far south as Taiwan, Taipei's CNA news agency reported.

China's new monitoring system will trace the earliest signs of sandstorms, thus making it possible to issue earlier warnings and predict the path of the storm.

The system will use satellites, radar, sounding balloons and other meteorological technologies to form a real-time network expected to identify the areas sandstorms will sweep over, said Li Huang, deputy director of the China Meteorological Bureau.


Probably not long from now, Beijingers will go outside and catch a camel

Chinese ecologist

Grasslands on the retreat

The storms are a result of 20 years of desertification with the northern grasslands in retreat.

The Gobi Desert is creeping southwards and the grasslands are being swallowed by sand.

An article in the Chinese Academy of Sciences weekly Kexue Shibao last year reported the studies of a senior scientist and China Academy of Sciences Atmospheric Physics Institute researcher Fu Congbin.

Desertification

Fu said in the eastern region of Inner Mongolia, within the past 10 years, desertification has been enabling the Gobi Desert area to expand at a rate of 2.4% per year.

Weather balloon used for storm monitoring
Weather balloons key to predicting storms

In another article in Kexue Shibao, the decline of the grasslands is described with a poignant lyricism.

"Once there was fragrant grass everywhere, fresh flowers bloomed, and people riding on camels could see other people riding but could not see their camels. Now it looks as if the land were suffering from a disease of the scalp, with vegetation thinly scattered."

Scientists paint a strange future for the Chinese capital if desertification is not tackled.

Environmentalists have reported that in recent years the desert has arrived at the northern gateway to Beijing.

At present, the nearest the desert comes to Beijing is 18km. Environmental protection experts have said that "probably not long from now, Beijingers will go outside and catch a camel".

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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See also:

08 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Deadly blizzards sweep N China
25 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Inner Mongolia needs aid: Red Cross
23 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
China's $18bn drought plan bill
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