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Beijing Sandstorm 2010: PHOTOS Of Major China Storm

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A major Beijing sandstorm is blasting the Chinese capital today, March 20, 2010 -- the most severe sandstorm in China this year, according to scientists.

China Daily reports that the dusty storm has severely reduced visibility. Beijing's air quality was rated a level 5 Saturday, an extremely rare rating meaning the air was hazardous and potentially harmful to citizens' health.

(SCROLL DOWN FOR BEIJING SANDSTORM PHOTOS)

More from the Associated Press:

BEIJING -- China's capital woke up to orange-tinted skies Saturday as the strongest sandstorm so far this year hit the country's north, delaying some flights at Beijing's airport and prompting a dust warning for Seoul.

The sky glowed and a thin dusting of sand covered Beijing, causing workers to muffle their faces in vast Tiananmen Square. The city's weather bureau gave air quality a rare hazardous ranking.

Air quality is "very bad for the health," China's national weather bureau warned. It said people should cover their mouths when outside and keep doors and windows closed.

China's expanding deserts now cover one-third of the country because of overgrazing, deforestation, urban sprawl and drought. The shifting sands have led to a sharp increase in sandstorms - the grit from which can travel as far as the western United States.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences has estimated that the number of sandstorms has jumped six-fold in the past 50 years to two dozen a year.

The latest sandstorm has also affected the regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia and the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi and Hebei.

As the sandstorm moved southeast, South Korea's national weather agency issued a yellow dust advisory for Seoul and other parts of the country.

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