Dust storms

Sand and dust storms usually occur when strong winds lift large amounts of sand and dust from bare, dry soils into the atmosphere. Over the last decade, scientists have come to realize the impacts on climate, human health, the environment and many socio-econimic sectors. Members of the World Meteorological Orgbanization (WMO) are at the vanguard in evaluating these impacts and developing products to guide preparedness, adaptation and mitigation policies (WMO, 2020). 

Sand and dust storms are common meteorological hazards in arid and semi-arid regions. They are usually caused by thunderstorms – or strong pressure gradients associated with cyclones – which increase wind speed over a wide area. These strong winds lift large amounts of sand and dust from bare, dry soils into the atmosphere, transporting them hundreds to thousands of kilometres away. Some 40% of aerosols in the troposphere (the lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere) are dust particles from wind erosion. The main sources of these mineral dusts are the arid regions of Northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia and China. Comparatively, Australia, America and South Africa make minor, but still important, contributions. Global estimates of dust emissions, mainly derived from simulation models, vary between one and three Gigatons per year (WMO, 2020).

Once released from the surface, dust particles are raised to higher levels of the troposphere by turbulent mixing and convective updrafts. They can then be transported by winds for lengths of time, depending on their size and meteorological conditions, before being pulled back down to the surface again. As larger particles sediment more quickly than smaller ones, there is a shift toward smaller particle sizes during transport. Dust is also washed out of the atmosphere by precipitation. The average lifetime of dust particles in the atmosphere ranges from a few hours for particles with a diameter larger than 10 μm, to more than 10 days for the sub-micrometric ones (WMO, 2020).


World Meteorological Organization (WMO). 2020. https://public.wmo.int/en/our-mandate/focus-areas/environment/SDS

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