Eco-briefs | Increase in dust storms could cause problems for soil, rural areas


A study led by the University of Colorado Boulder found that the amount of dust blown across the West has increased since 1994.

Because dust storms transport dust from one place to another, dust storms change the composition of the Earth’s surface in places affected by them. The increase in dust storms can weaken the soil and redistribute the dust particles with the most nutrients. More dust storms can also cause poor air quality and low visibility for people living in rural areas.

“Dust storms cause a large-scale reorganization of nutrients on the surface of the Earth,” Janice Brahney, who led the study as a CU-Boulder doctoral student, said in a news release. The researchers said they suspected more dust storms were happening from anecdotes of people who had lived in the West for years and had noticed the storms more frequently.

Researchers at CU looked at calcium deposition data from across the United States because wind erosion of soils moves calcium through the atmosphere. The researchers found that the calcium deposition has increased in 116 of the 175 collection sites between 1994 and 2010, indicating more blowing dust. The Northwest, Midwest and Intermountain West saw the largest increases. Looking at calcium deposition can underestimate the amount of traveling dust because not all dust has the same amount of calcium and the data only measured dust that had hit water in the atmosphere, according to the news release.

— Ainslee Mac Naughton