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Don Paul: Dust storms and the health risks they carry are on the rise

Don Paul

Here is another reason to be glad about the Western New York climate and our environment: We don’t have dust storms.

Dust storms will be increasing over many parts of the globe, as they already are in such places as the southwest United States. Fine dust particles create spectacular visual impact and immediate hazards to people. This is demonstrated in a brief safety video produced by the Arizona Department of Transportation.

In the United States, dust storms have become more commonplace in the arid southwest, as seen in this video from Fox 10 TV in Phoenix:

Dust storms were epic during the mid-1930s, when land in the southern central plains had been over-cultivated during a long-term severe to extreme drought. That evolved into the Dust Bowl, sending 2.5 million people from Oklahoma and other plains states west to try to find a new life. An untold number of victims died from what became known as “dust pneumonia.”

Now, in our desert southwest, millions of people lie in the path of these sudden, powerful winds that often flow out ahead of showers and thunderstorms, especially at this time of the year when the monsoon season spawns more of the storms.

These winds are typically the cold outflow ahead of the approaching storms from rapidly descending columns of rain-cooled air with high rates of evaporation. They are known as haboob winds. The haboob is common to arid regions around the globe, including Australia, southwest Asia, parts of China and South Africa. They can be seen from space. NASA is studying the massive transport of dust from the world's largest arid region, the Sahara Desert:

There is excellent agreement among the many climate models that most arid regions of the globe will be expanding and, in many cases, becoming more arid than they already are over the next century. While most models predict more heavy precipitation events in mid-latitudes in wetter regions, they also conversely predict more frequent and expansive drought conditions in arid regions. When grasslands and semi-arid regions are added to the true deserts of the world, the general class of drylands makes up 41 percent of the world’s landmass.

A new study by researchers from George Washington University and Harvard projects that if the world stays on its rapidly rising greenhouse gas curve, we can expect a 130 percent increase in premature mortality and a tripling of hospitalization rates from respiratory and cardiovascular disease associated with fine dust particles. Such increases have already begun to show up in epidemiological data. In addition to more sophisticated climate forecasts, which show good agreement in projections of mega-droughts in arid regions, multidisciplinary research ties these impacts to human activity-related warming that would not be occurring if greenhouse gas levels had remained where they were early in the 20th century.

In addition, even with greatly improved soil science and conservation, agricultural activity in arid regions still makes large contributions to the availability of fine dust particles. Travel on unpaved roads also lends its hand to the dust load, so that haboobs can carry enormous amounts of fine dust that far exceed levels experienced in the '40s, following the Dust Bowl, through the early 1980s. The study focused on the smallest dust particles (0.0025 millimeters) because those particles can penetrate to the deepest small cavities of the lungs. Further epidemiological work is needed to differentiate between the chemical and physical makeup of the particles and their respective effects on human health.

Silica is known to make up about 60 percent of windborn dust and is linked with lung inflammation, lung cancer and autoimmune disease. The study also shows that windblown fine dust can also carry pathogens such as valley fever and toxins that have led to arsenic poisoning.

So, you can see why projections of fine dust effects on humans must be a multidisciplinary effort, including climate science, soil science, land use, several branches of medicine and epidemiology. In our country, we have had the wealth and the engineering by which people can settle in these inhospitable arid regions. Despite our sophisticated infrastructure, people will inevitably be exposed to more and more fine dust in that environment. Even now, severe to extreme drought (compared to average climatology) is widespread in the southwest and parts of the plains, with fine dust transported from nearby Mexico as well.

Dust also can be carried from dry lake beds and the aforementioned agricultural activity. The majority of climate scientists believe there is abundant evidence that we are on a path closer to a worst-case scenario on warming impacts into the next century than a best-case scenario. The worst case would bring a 30 percent increase in airborne fine dust by the end of the century. The best-case scenario would bring a 10 percent increase in the dust, still leading to a 20 percent increase in premature dust-related mortality. But that is a LONG way from the 130percent increase in mortality tied to scenarios closer to the worst case.

Climate change mitigation efforts can still make a huge difference for the further desertification in arid regions, as well as in the rate of sea level rise for the coastal regions of the earth, in moving us back toward a best-case scenario.

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