BEIJING China's capital, routinely suffering from air pollution caused by automobile exhaust and coal burning, had another bad day today.
By 6 a.m. local time, air pollution was already "Beyond Index," according to @BeijingAir, a Twitter feed updated hourly with air quality information, maintained by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and closely watched by local residents.
Even the official air data maintained by the local Beijing government, which usually underestimates the pollution compared with the Embassy's feed, put the condition at Level Six, the highest, or "severely polluted."
The smog, visible to human eyes, is mainly caused by particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers, or PM 2.5, a term known not only to scientists anymore, but also to increasingly health-conscious Beijing residents.
Many Chinese natives used to think the smog covering the city was just natural fog -- before intensive media coverage of the city's air quality made them have second thoughts.
The Chinese Academy of Science published a report on severe smog weeks ago that put the total amount of pollutants suspending over the city of Beijing at over 4,000 tons at its worst point.
Adding to the usual pollution particles, dust from the western part of the country arrived later in the morning - sandstorms, to be exact. At 11 a.m., the local environment monitoring agency reported that fine sand from Inner Mongolia as well as the Republic of Mongolia had blanketed the city.
A sandstorm in spring is actually quite common for the capital, but on the heels of a terribly polluted morning, it just seemed like too much for most residents.
The increase of PM 10, a pollutant larger in size from the sand dust, was recorded by the Beijing Municipal Environment Monitoring Center, which advised residents to avoid outdoor activities.
The sandstorm came with gale force winds, according to the Beijing Meteorological Bureau.
Chinese social media was flooded with tweets and photos about the chaos.
Zhao Liang, who works in a office overlooking the iconic CCTV News Site, posted a photo with the building invisible but outlined with yellow lines.
Another user on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, posted a split photo comparing a blue sky day (in this case, Feb. 22, only six days ago) and this morning in Beijing.
A micro-blogger with almost 270,000 followers, Gudabaihua, poked fun with a little creativity, changing the lyrics of "Empire State of Mind" to reflect Beijing's air pollution, saying, "#Empire Stats of PM#In Beijing~~smoking jungle where fumes are made of~There's nothing you can do~~Now you're in Beijing~~The clouds will make you cough and puke~Thick air will destroy you~~let's breathe it in Beijing~~Beijing~~Beijing~~"