Tibet sandstorm season arrives two months early

BEIJING, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Chinese weather forecasters have warned of transport disruptions in Tibet after the sandstorm season hit the region two months early, state media reported on Tuesday.

Lhasa, the regional capital, was cloaked in dust on Sunday afternoon after winds gusting up to 79 kilometres (50 miles) per hour forced flight cancellations and left hundreds of people stranded at the airport, Xinhua news agency said.

"Dust storms hit Lhasa every year, but normally not until March," Xinhua quoted Zhoema, a Lhasa resident for over 30 years, as saying.

"It is rare to see such a strong dust storm in January," Zhoema said.

The first dust storm of the year hit Lhasa on Jan. 10, Xinhua said, citing the regional meteorological station.

It said the early arrival of sandstorms was blamed on winter's "very low rainfall" -- only 0.1 mm -- and high temperatures.

Lhasa recorded a daytime high temperature of 20.4 Celsius (69 Fahrenheit) earlier in the month, a 10th of a degree below the record set in 2001, Xinhua said, citing a meteorological official.

The report comes days after the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau warned of more severe sandstorms than normal in the Chinese capital this spring because of an unusually mild and dry winter.

The weather in Lhasa improved on Tuesday, but experts did not rule out the possibility of more dust storms, with more high winds expected on Wednesday.

Lhasa has some of the best air quality for a Chinese city, reporting 363 days of good air quality from December 2005 to October 2006.