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More rainfall in China this season means cleaner cars and clothesline washes in Japan and South Korea.

The wet Chinese spring is curtailing Gobi desert dust, which high-altitude winds carry each spring across the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan. In past years, it’s triggered allergies and played havoc with airplane traffic.

Called kosa or “yellow sand” in Japanese, the grit is such a pest that Japan tracks the annual invasion. One sighting at one location counts as a “spot.” Last year was a record-setter: 1,276 yellow sand “spots” were recorded at 120 observation sites in Japan.

But just 168 spots have been spotted during 2003, the most recent on April 17, said Hiroshi Yokoyama of the Japan Meteorological Agency.

Last year, the first yellow sand was observed Jan. 12; sightings lasted until June 5. Gobi dust also was observed from Nov. 11 to Nov. 13. This year, though, “there was large rainfall observed in deserts,” Yokoyama said. “This made it hard for the sand to blow in the air.”

JMA has been observing yellow sand for about 10 years, he said.

During 1991, observers recorded only three or four yellow sand days. But during last year’s sandy spring event, more than 50,000 tons of sand were dumped on Beijing, then driven eastward by winds to Japan and beyond, according to the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Several Asian airlines suspended flights at the peak of last year’s dust storms as thick swirling sands reduced visibility and threatened to damage jet engines.

Environmental experts blame overgrazing and deforestation across north China for damaging the ecosystem, drying oases and rivers and worsening the desert environment. Four years of Central Asian drought also have aggravated the drifting desert sands, NOAA researchers have said on the agency’s Web site.

So China is planting a “green wall,” a 2,800-mile-long belt of sheltering trees across that country’s northwest rim, skirting the Gobi Desert. It’s meant to keep out sand, just as the stone-and-brick Great Wall was built to hold back Central Asian warrior hordes centuries ago.

But progress has been slow. Since the first desert tracking study eight years ago, another 50,000 square kilometers, or 31,050 square miles, have been reduced to dust; the Gobi desert has crept to within 155 miles of the capital.

Yellow dust especially threatens the elderly or people with weakened respiratory systems. Chinese scientists say it contains aluminum, zinc and iron, which irritate the eyes and respiratory system. Blamed for health problems in South Korea, across the Yellow Sea, it has been detected as far away as Hawaii.

Sand even affects ocean life. In spring 2001, Berkeley Laboratory researchers reported, phytoplankton in the North Pacific Ocean grew rapidly after a passing storm had deposited iron-rich dust from the Gobi Desert.

Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

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