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Arizona Dust Storms: USGS Science Explains the Phenomenon
Released: 10/12/2011 5:32:03 PM

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
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Leslie Gordon 1-click interview
Phone: (650) 329-4006

Seth Munson 1-click interview
Phone: (303) 236-1404



ARIZONA  – A dust storm that rolled across the Arizona desert on Tuesday, October 4, 2011, effectively blinded motorists, leading to a large string of motor vehicle crashes, multiple injuries, and at least one death. Both this storm and another storm that passed through Phoenix on July 5, 2011, carried large quantities of airborne particulates, caused considerable property damage, and potential harm to human health.

USGS and partner science show that there are many causes of dust storms, also known as haboobs. Two contributing factors are low vegetation cover and disturbance to soil surfaces.

"Accelerated rates of dust emission have important implications for natural systems and human well-being, so developing a better understanding of how climate and land-use change may affect arid landscapes is an important and emerging area of research," said Seth Munson, a USGS ecologist based in Denver.  He continued and said, "our results from long-term monitoring of climate and vegetation on public land in the southwestern United States suggest that years with low precipitation and high temperatures are related to low plant cover, which can accelerate the likelihood of dust production, especially on disturbed soil surfaces."

Vegetation contributes to ecological integrity. The presence of plants reduces soil erosion and dust storms, because it keeps the soil intact, reduces wind momentum, and traps moving soil particles (see figure below). In spaces between the plants, many undisturbed desert soils are naturally armored by hardened physical and biological crusts.

Low vegetation cover can especially be a problem in drought years in abandoned agricultural fields, which are generally dominated by annual plants. This means that the consequences of dust storms, including motor vehicle crashes, are high in a drought year and low in years with more precipitation. 

Similarly, in places where land-use activities destroy or reduce soil crusts and weaken soil stability, experts know to assume higher dust storm activity than in places where soils are left undisturbed.

Future climate scenarios predict that drought conditions will worsen, and therefore more dust storms are likely. Nevertheless, site restoration and reduced disturbance can mitigate some of the factors that promote dust emission. The USGS and land managers are working together to better understand the causes and sources of dust storm activity in the southwestern United States.

The presence of plants reduces soil erosion and dust storms because it keeps the soil intact, reduces wind momentum, and traps moving soil particles. Intact soil surfaces, which may include soil crusts, can also reduce the risk of dust storms. The number of motor vehicle crashes caused by dust storms in Arizona has generally been lower when the annual precipitation has been higher. In a changing climate, climate scenarios predict more drought, which will likely mean more dust storms. But site restoration and reduced disturbance can mitigate some factors that promote dust emissions.
The presence of plants reduces soil erosion and dust storms because it keeps the soil intact, reduces wind momentum, and traps moving soil particles. Intact soil surfaces, which may include soil crusts, can also reduce the risk of dust storms. (High resolution image) The number of motor vehicle crashes caused by dust storms in Arizona has generally been lower when the annual precipitation has been higher. In a changing climate, climate scenarios predict more drought, which will likely mean more dust storms. But site restoration and reduced disturbance can mitigate some factors that promote dust emissions. (High resolution image)

 


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