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American West Becoming Increasingly Dusty

Environment  (tags: animals, climate-change, CO2emissions, destruction, ecosystems, environment, globalwarming, habitatdestruction, healthconditions, politics, pollution, research, science, Sustainabililty, trees, water, weather )

- 1803 days ago -
The number of dust storms is rising. What does that mean?

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Kit B (276)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 6:48 am
Photo Credit: Dust storm over Phoenix, AZ - Photograph by Ross D. Franklin, AP

The American West is becoming an increasingly dusty place: So-called "dust emissions"—including giant dust storms reminiscent of the Dust Bowl era—have increased in the past 17 years, according to a new study.

Scientists understand only some of the reasons for the surge.

"About half of the changes [we see] are due to drought and high-wind events. We're seeing more of these larger storms that can move dust," said Jason Neff, a geological scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a co-author of the study. "The other half [of dust storms we see remains] unexplained, but candidates include off-road vehicle use, oil and gas development, urban and rural development, and grazing."

In the new study, published online in the journal Aeolian Research, Neff and his team calculated the amount of dust blowing across the United States by estimating the amount of calcium-containing dust particles colliding with water droplets in the atmosphere.

When water droplets and dust particles collide, more rain falls, which means more calcium deposition on the ground.

The researchers found that during the 17-year study period, calcium deposition increased across the U.S., especially in the Northwest, the Midwest, and the Intermountain West, which includes Colorado, Arizona, and Utah.

They concluded that the increase in calcium deposition was probably caused by dust erosion after ruling out other possible sources of atmospheric calcium, such as forest fires, industrial emissions, and ocean spray.

There are environmental and health impacts related to having more dust in the air—but not all of them are bad. Here are five noticeable effects of increased dust emissions.

Faster Snowmelt

When dust is blown over mountain snowpacks, as is often the case in the Rockies, the dark particles decrease the snow's ability to reflect sunlight. As a result, the snowpacks absorb more heat and melt faster and earlier in the season.

"It changes the timing of the freshet"—flooding caused by melted snow—"which can have a lot of knock-on consequences for the ecosystem," said Janice Brahney, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado at Boulder and first author of the study.

Reduced Visibility

Dust storms can reduce visibility—sometimes with deadly effects.

In northern Nevada this week, a 27-car wreck that killed one person was blamed on a dust storm that created "whiteout conditions."

Nourishing Alpine Ecosystems

Dust storms can also help carry soil nutrients such as phosphorous to high-altitude alpine areas in the mountains.

"Dust tends to fall in mountain regions because [mountains are] natural barriers to transport," Brahney explained.

"A lot of alpine areas are typically very low in nutrients. This addition of dust nutrients can start to change the ecology for some systems."

Soil Buildup

Given enough time—on the scale of about 10,000 years or so—the particles deposited by dust storms in the mountains can build up into a soil layer. Previous work by Neff has shown that soil particles in the Colorado Rockies originate from as far as Utah, northern Arizona, and Nevada.

"In the mountains of Colorado, about one-quarter of the soil that you find in high-elevation settings is actually dust," Neff said.

Acid Rain Neutralization

Dust can also help cancel out the effects of acid rain. That's because calcium in the dust can react to neutralize chemicals such as nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide that are released into the atmosphere by industrial emissions.

"In areas where acid emissions are increasing, acid [rain] is decreasing. That's because we're also increasing dust emissions," Brahney said.

Spike in Respiratory Problems

In addition to soil particles, dust storms can also transport toxins, pesticides and fertilizers, and heavy metals—all of which can cause respiratory problems if inhaled.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recently issued a warning about an alarming rise in the southwestern states of valley fever, a respiratory infection that is caused by a dust-borne fungus.

Neff doesn't think it's a coincidence that the regions where the incidence of valley fever has increased are also those that have seen the biggest spikes in dust emissions.

"Most of our focus on air quality and particulates is for urban areas," Neff said. "I would say that to some degree, we've left behind those rural areas in the United States where people are exposed to natural soil particles."

By: Ker Than | National Geographic News |

JL A (281)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 8:28 am
Excellent analyses and illumination of why toxics and other similar issues cannot completely be a states' issue with how particulate matter actually travels across state lines.

Gene J (290)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 9:07 am
Well, gosh, isn't pollination a good idea? Yes, it is, but this isn't that. This is climate change at work whether these researchers know it or not. This can't be viewed as an isolated incident but must be seen as part of the changes that are occurring globally as a result of climate change. Ever bigger storms whether composed of dirt or water are becoming commonplace, but not so much so as to be dismissed as part of the natural cycle of life on the planet. We are witnessing the beginning of the end and we are not fortunate to be doing so, though certainly more so than those generations yet to come who will bear the full brunt of what we have done to the ecosystem on Earth. It is enough to make a grown man cry. Unless he's part of the 1% who caused this and does not care what happens to anyone else as long as his stack of money continues to grow. That stack won't protect his descendants, but he doesn't care about them either. I think we live in the most purely selfish age the planet has ever seen. Up until now, life has been about carving out a living, now it is about carving up everything for the benefit of a few at the expense of the many. The Age of Hedonism. Not one of our golden ages, I'm afraid.

Arielle S (313)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 9:14 am
So true, Gene - we've lost touch with Mother Earth and with compassion, decency and what's really important as well. Sometimes I'm glad I'm old....

Nancy M (197)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 11:51 am
Can we call it a Dust Bowl yet?

Kit B (276)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 12:26 pm

Nope Nancy we can not. I have asked and the answer is still a resounding no, seems people have some residual memories from another time the term dust bowl was used. Just not enough memory to prevent a second round.

David C (131)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 3:18 pm
? less rain, excessive water use by people (you know, they gotta keep golf courses green)???

more heat???? more violent winds due to more heat?????

hmmmmmm, wonder if humanity might be changing our environment??????

thanks......I'm very sarcastic today.

Yvonne White (229)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 3:36 pm
The last Dust Bowl should have given us plenty of Suggestions about how to prevent this "not-quite-Dust-Bowl-enough-to-name" event..but no, and it might Not even be Our fault - since dust particles can come from Continents away! Archaeologists have studied the soils everywhere to see what eruptions can & do leave markers thousands of miles away. The "always helpful" Big AgriBusiness have invented "no till" planting (which sucks for me because I surface hunt artifacts), though how much of seed coatings & other spraying may become airborn & invade other parts of the country is still debated. But I think erosion (if not where the dust IS, then where it came from) and eruptions are the main causes for this round of Thick Air!

Jae A (316)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 3:39 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Arielle because you have done so within the last day
You cannot currently send a star to Kit because you have done so within the last day
You cannot currently send a star to Gene because you have done so within the last day.
You cannot currently send a star to Arielle because you have done so within the last day

..but I was able to send one to Dave C. and Nancy.....hummm...a glitch in the system...?....whatever, they did go through regardless :-).

Maybe there is a 'between' point that all sides could go that goes like this ...*natural occuring but at accelarated speeds via human actions*...[very thoughtle$$/Greedy ones at that]....?

What part is it that the Chrisitian community ...especially those who own oil/gas/coal/chemical/millitary industrial complex etc. stocks don't understand about what is meant , in their own bible, when it says that people are to be the 'caretakeers of the earth'....? No where in it have I read that they are to be the Takers of/from it and that it's their God Given right to abuse it the way they are by supporting such Corporates/$$ machines. ..but that's what they keep on doing , day after day, year after year...leaving the toxins/pollution and climate change damage from their doing so for the next generation [s] to deal well as 'nature'. Maybe they really don't understand it but ya can bet that nature will win eventrually , if it has to wipe every human off the face of the earth to stop their thinketh.

Nancy M (197)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 3:50 pm
Well Thanks, Jae. Appreciated it.

Funny ot me as I had just been watching teh Dust Bowl series on public TV. One of the things they mentioned for Oklahoma anyway was that they got rid of switch grass in order to grow crops. As a results of the Dust Bowl- they started promoting keeping some switchgrass around.

I had heard of switch grass recently- it is promoted as a good source for Biofuels. Hmm..... need more switch grass everywhere I guess.


. (0)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 3:59 pm
On the back of what has happened to Oklahoma, this is just disconcerting news.

Kit B (276)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 4:07 pm

One of many contributing factors to the Dust Bowl, Nancy. That is a very good series on the dust bowl, PBS always offers quality educational programming. Every one could learn the deadly consequences of playing around with mother nature. The dust bowl hit Oklahoma, very hard, but at a couple of points those storms blackened the skies of Chicago and moved across the country to bring massive black clouds of dust all the way to NYC. We never do learn.

Past Member (0)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 4:11 pm
As climate change accelerates, desertification will expand and intensity. It is hard to feel hopeful.

Past Member (0)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 4:12 pm
...intensify even.

greenplanet e (155)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 6:55 pm
Don't dry out the planet!

Poor Earth.

Vallee R (280)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 7:11 pm
Nancy M - I think we rare getting cose but not there yet.

Terry V (30)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 7:42 pm
Polution and Global Warming


Jae A (316)
Friday June 14, 2013, 12:46 am
Reality is what it is...climate change is headed in a very disturbing direction.....Solutions.., must start with humans being aware of their own part in climate change and or the excelleration of it due to the abuses they've allowed Corporations to perpetrate on it in the name of progress and material wealth... Making mistakes is one thing..continuing on with them knowing they were and stil are mistakes, quite another me thinketh. Perhaps it is too late to do much if anything about it..but we'll not know that unless we unite and demand that our Corporate Government (s)start doing everything possible to at least slow the rate down ..instead of doing the continuing with their mistake (s). It's our planet also !

Kerrie G (116)
Friday June 14, 2013, 12:57 am
Noted, thanks.

Helen Porter (39)
Friday June 14, 2013, 1:16 am
Many of our states are in serious crisis from the forerunner of Climate Change. Yet the guy in the white house wants to send lots of money over to Syria.

AWAY AWHILE Cal Mendelsohn (1067)
Friday June 14, 2013, 3:07 am
Thanks Kit--a really informative article

Frances Darcy (133)
Friday June 14, 2013, 4:54 am
Thanks Kit.. a very well written article.....all the details without " rambling", and well explained. VERY , VERY EASY TO READ AND DIGEST. A BIG THANK YOU, KIT.

Jo S (619)
Friday June 14, 2013, 1:47 pm
Wow Kit you really made it easy to digest that mouthful!
Noted, Shared
Thanks Kit.

Sherri G (128)
Saturday June 15, 2013, 1:52 am
My parents lived through the dust bowl storms in Oaklahoma, New Mexico, Texas. Here we go again. You are right Kit we never do learn. We are paying a high price for ignorance about climate change. My Mother said sand was in their food, house, clothes, and of course their lungs. It killed animals and humans. We learn or we are stupid and we will die. I for one don't want to go out this way or as a by product of dust storms like the 27 car pile up. TY Kit for posting this. Noted

Nancy M (197)
Saturday June 15, 2013, 7:27 am

AT this point, I am not sure it is ignorance so much as DENIAL.

Lois Jordan (63)
Saturday June 15, 2013, 5:26 pm
Noted. Thanks, Kit. I was going to say ("cough. cough")...but we just finally had a bit of rain here in Tucson for the first time in many weeks. Very interesting article.

Grace Adams (43)
Tuesday September 10, 2013, 3:17 am
Our federal government needs to negotiate a deal with our too big to fail fossil fuel firms that will give their shareholders as much income as with business as usual while at the same time giving the grandchildren of today's children a decent chance at living in a world in which our farms still produce enough to feed the population.
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