Sandstorm advancing towards a school in Zhangye, Gansu province. Photo: China News Services
Sandstorm advancing towards a school in Zhangye, Gansu province. Photo: China News Services

Operations at Urumqi’s airport in northwestern China were brought to a standstill on Saturday, when aircraft and service vehicles were encrusted in what appeared to be filthy compounds of dust and ice.

Black snow and extremely hazy skies forced the airport operator to close the only runway due to near-zero visibility, and more than 10,000 passengers were stranded while emergency crews defrosted the runway and taxiways.

Jets operated by China Southern Airlines’ Xinjiang branch and Urumqi Air were grounded for two days as maintenance teams labored to remove ice and dust from wings and engine blades.

Planes at Urumqi’s airport were covered by muddy snow as if victims of a massive mudslide. Photos: Weibo

The capital city of Xinjiang in Uygur Autonomous Region has been lurching from one sandstorm to another since September as winter began to take over the region with cold fronts blowing in from Siberia.

Powerful airstreams also bring sand and dust from the massive deserts that flank Urumqi, along with fumes emitted by coal-fired power plants operating at full capacity to cope with peak electricity demand in the cold months.

Face masks flew off the shelves as the city’s air quality readings soared to “hazardous” levels.

Meanwhile, video clips of a “wall” of sand besieging a county in nearby Gansu province have gone viral online.


A massive sandstorm making its way towards Zhangye, a county in northwestern China’s Gansu province. Photos: Weibo via VCG, China News Services

YouTube video

Residents in the county of Zhangye panicked at the sight of the apocalypse-like sandstorm advancing towards the built-up area, swallowing up buildings and farmland.

Gansu is on the forefront of China’s war to resist the expansion of deserts in northwestern China, where desertification amid retreating forests and grasslands has intensified over the past decade. Sandstorms from Xinjiang and Gansu are also blamed for the sandy air that permeates Beijing and northern China during the winter.

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