May 1, 2008 Atmospheric Physicists designed an early warning system to predict the path and danger of developing dust storms. They linked together storm research, forecasting, and warning tools from different countries. Their system allows forecasters to track the composition of the dust as well as any spores, pollutants, and microorganisms that may cause health problems.
Every year, early warnings about dangerous thunderstorms -- even tornadoes and hurricanes -- help get millions of people out of harms way before the danger comes. Now, scientists are worried about a new threat: dust storms. If you think only desert dwellers need to worry, think again.
For 21 years, Arizona firefighter Bob Poindexter has watched dust storms wreak havoc on highways. "You can't see anything," Poindexter told Ivanhoe about dust storms. "You're blinded."
Every year, dozens of people lose their lives caught in the middle of them. Dangerous for drivers and pilots, scientists say dust storms can also be a health hazard, carrying mold, viruses and bacteria for miles. University of Arizona atmospheric physicist Bill Sprigg, Ph.D., has studied dust storms all over the world that affect us here in the United States -- like a massive African storm in 2004. "In Florida, for example, the background dust concentration during an African dust storm event increased ten times," Dr. Sprigg explained.
But how can science protect us from these storms? Using weather, satellite and air quality information, Dr. Sprigg and his colleagues think they've developed the answer -- a computer model that can predict when, where and how much dust will come. "The kinds of models that we are using allow us to forecast where this dust is going to be anywhere in the world," Dr. Sprigg said.
One day those forecasts could help millions get out of harm's way, before a dust storm moves in. Researchers at the University of Arizona have partnered with the University of New Mexico, NASA, NOAA and even the navy on the dust storm project. The hope is that soon, dust storm forecasts will be available to people all over the world.
DUST TO DUST: Dust storms form primarily during the summer and winter months in the Sahara, but some years they barely form at all, and scientists are unsure why. Attention has turned to the environmental impact of dust since it became clear that in some years, millions of tons of sand rise up from the Sahara Desert and float across the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes in as few as five days. The sand rises when hot desert air collides with the cooler, dryer air of the Sahel region -- just south of the Sahara -- and forms wind. As particles swirl upwards, strong trade winds blow them west into the northern Atlantic. It's also possible that these dust storms might suppress the development of hurricanes.
Sahara Desert dust storms impact the atmosphere in three ways: (1) dust storms are extremely dry and cover a large area; (2) dust storms have strong winds; and (3) dust absorbs heat and prevents cloud formation. Dry, dust-ridden layers of air may help to dampen brewing hurricanes, which need heat and moisture to fuel them. That effect could also mean that dust storms have the potential to shift a hurricane's path further to the west, giving it a higher chance of hitting US soil.
The American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union contributed to the information contained in the video portion of this report.