China dust storm hits Eastern Sierra


Last Friday’s terrible air quality was due to a huge dust storm that arose in China’s Gobi Desert

Last Friday, the Mammoth Times stated on its website that the poor air that day was due to a prescribed burn near Tom’s Place.

It seemed the logical explanation, since we had just received a press release about the burn that morning.

But chasing down a story this week about potential spring prescribed burns and the usual result—poor local air quality—we found that the thick white haze was due to, of all things, a dust storm from China’s Gobi Desert, flung thousands of miles across the Pacific and into California.

“It was a huge dust storm that somehow got into the jet stream and streamed across the Pacific Ocean, then swooped down and dumped it into California,” said Ted Schade, the director of the local air pollution control district.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but that’s what it was.”

Schade said the same big storm in China finally blew all of the air pollution lingering in Beijing out of the city—only to be replaced by a massive infusion of dust pollution instead.

A NASA Earth Observatory website article, accompanied by a graphic photo of the huge dust storm, confirmed Shade’s words.

“On March 10, China Daily reported that winds had blown haze out of the Beijing area but brought in dust to replace it,” the article stated. “As a result, the major air pollutant in the capital city changed from PM2.5 to PM10. Both PM2.5 and PM10 particles can pose health hazards, although PM2.5 particles are generally considered more dangerous because their smaller size allows them to be inhaled more deeply into the lungs. Within a few days, PM2.5 levels had risen again; the Twitter feed from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported PM2.5 readings of unhealthy and very unhealthy as of March 14.”

Eastern Sierrans were breathing the same dust as their Chinese neighbors thousands of miles away.

Such giant dust storms that span oceans and countries are most often seen in the spring. They are fairly uncommon—the last one to hit the Eastern Sierra was in 2009, according to Schade—but they are becoming more common as the global climate shifts and deserts expand, according to the article. This was the second such storm to affect Beijing since the beginning of the year.

In the Eastern Sierra, the spring burning season is already coming to a close due to the dry conditions. Spring burning is done on wildlands and agricultural lands as a way to clear unwanted vegetation away before the summer season arrives.

“The Owens Valley is about done burning as of this week and I don’t think there is much going on in [the Mammoth] area, either,” Schade said.

Sue Farley oversees most such “prescribed fire” burns in the Inyo National Forest that surrounds Mammoth Lakes. She said the only burn in the near future will be near June Lake and that will occur very slowly, to minimize smoke issues.

“People are a bit freaked out down here,” said Schade, referring to the Bishop and Owens Valley area.

“We’ve only had a quarter inch of rain since the beginning of the year. That’s unheard of and no one wants to push it (spring burning). It’s very, very dry.”