US Dust storms getting worse, posing serious human health consequences

Dust storm in Utah, before and after. Photo: Michael Duniway/USGC

Soil erosion in the West is getting worse. And that’s creating more dust – which isn’t good for ecosystems, human health or the economy. study from the U.S. Geological Survey says more than 200 thousand square miles of land in the U.S. is more susceptible than ever to soil erosion from wind. And roughly two-thirds of that is on federally managed land in the West. According to Michael Duniway, the lead author of the study the cause of increased dust stem from removal of vegetation, energy exploration, off-highway vehicles, overgrazing as well as droughts and wildfires.

Duniway said climate models predict those conditions will only get worse:

  • Wind erosion is not only bad for desert ecosystems like in the Four Corners area because soil loses its nutrients to the air, but soil erosion also hurts non-desert areas.
  • Accelerated erosion by wind off the desert can transport dust into the Rocky Mountains, and that landing on the snowpack can cause a decrease in annual water flows for the Colorado River basin which is a large deal, considering the importance of the Colorado River for agriculture and city uses in the West

Dust storms, or haboobs as they’re referred to in the meteorological world, affect transportation, agriculture, and upper respiratory health issues. They may also be related to Valley Fever Infection, according to a study just published in the journal, Geophysical Research Letters, as Dr. Marshall Shepherd wrote in his column for Forbes.

Why This Matters: Some scientists believe that we are heading toward another Dust Bowl but this time we’ll be the cause of both of the effects: poor soil management and drought caused by anthropogenic climate change. According to the Environmental Working Group, dust storms are also being compounded by crop insurance that is encouraging farmers to keep planting on compromised land year after year, degrading it further. Dust storms are a major public health risk and since they travel so quickly can affect millions of Americans at a time.

Go Deeper: Dust travels far and wide, in fact, last week snow falling in Minnesota had a strange orange tinge which was the result of dust that was blown from the Southwest. The dust injection blew into Minnesota from west Texas and northern Mexico. NOAA satellites tracked the dust plume, some of which traveled as far as 1,000 miles. Check out this satellite footage:

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