Storms in the desert

Dust Storms and Haboobs

Dust storms and Haboobs can occur anywhere in the United States but are most common in the Southwest. Haboobs occur as a result of thunderstorm outflow winds. Strong thunderstorm winds can start a dust storm that can drastically reduce visibility. Your NWS Forecast Office will issue a Dust Storm Warning if one is happening in your area.

Motorists Beware!

A dust storm usually arrives suddenly in the form of an advancing wall of dust and debris which may be miles long and several thousand feet high. They strike with little warning, making driving conditions hazardous. Blinding, choking dust can quickly reduce visibility, causing accidents that may involve chain collisions, creating massive pileups. Dust storms usually last only a few minutes, but the actions a motorist takes during the storm may be the most important of his or her life.

Dust Storm Safety Tips

  • If dense dust is observed blowing across or approaching a roadway, pull your vehicle off the pavement as far as possible, stop, turn off lights, set the emergency brake, take your foot off of the brake pedal to be sure the tail lights are not illuminated.
  • Don’t enter the dust storm area if you can avoid it.
  • If you can’t pull off the roadway, proceed at a speed suitable for visibility, turn on lights and sound horn occasionally. Use the painted center line to help guide you. Look for a safe place to pull off the roadway.
  • Never stop on the traveled portion of the roadway.

Lights Out!

In the past, motorists driving in dust storms have pulled off the roadway, leaving lights on. Vehicles approaching from the rear and using the advance car’s lights as a guide have inadvertently left the roadway and in some instances collided with the parked vehicle. Make sure all of your lights are off when you park off the roadway.

What Is a Dust Storm?

The Short Answer: A dust storm is a wall of dust and debris that is blown into an area by strong winds from thunderstorms. The wall of dust created by a dust storm can be miles long and several thousand feet high.

A dust storm approaches downtown Phoenix on August 11, 2012. Credit: NOAA

A dust storm is a wall of dust and debris that is often blown into an area by strong winds from thunderstorms. The wall of dust can be miles long and several thousand feet high.

Dust storms happen in many places around the world. Most of the world’s dust storms occur over the Middle East and North Africa. However, they can also happen anywhere in the United States. In the U.S., dust storms are most common in the Southwest, where they peak in the springtime.

On any given day, dust storms kick up a lot of dust into our air. In fact, scientists estimate that on average, about 44 billion pounds (20 teragrams) of dust are in Earth’s atmosphere at any one time.

The NOAA-20 weather satellite captured this image of a large dust storm over the Persian Gulf on May 13, 2018. Though beautiful from space, the dust was disruptive on the ground, causing flight delays for airlines. Credit: NOAA/NESDIS

What causes a dust storm?

Dust storms are caused by very strong winds — often produced by thunderstorms. In dry regions, the winds can pull dust from the ground up into the air, creating a dust storm.

An area’s geography and plant life can also make it more likely to have dust storms. For example, dust storms are common in regions that are flat and have very few trees and plants. These two features allow winds to build up momentum, causing the winds to grow stronger and drive more dust into the atmosphere.

NOAA’s GOES-16 weather satellite captured this video of a Saharan dust storm blowing off the western coast of Africa on December 19, 2017. About half of the dust suspended in Earth’s atmosphere originates in North Africa. Credit: NOAA/CIRA

Why are dust storms a problem?

Although dust storms may end after just a few minutes, dust can hang in the air and cause problems for days or even months afterward. Dust storms — and their lingering effects — can be hazardous for several reasons:

  • A dust storm’s initial wall of dust and debris can arrive suddenly and can catch people by surprise.
  • Dust storms can make it difficult to see when you’re driving a car and can lead to car accidents.
  • Dust in the air can cause serious problems for airplanes. Dense dust can reduce visibility for pilots, causing delays and cancellations. Dust storms can also cause mechanical problems in airplanes.
  • Breathing dusty air during a dust storm can cause health problems — especially for people with asthma.

A dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, in April 1935. In the 1930s, the American prairie states experienced a period of severe drought and dust storms called the “Dust Bowl.” Credit: NOAA George E. Marsh Album

Is there a warning for dust storms?

If a dust storm is spotted in your area, your local National Weather Service forecast office will issue a dust storm warning. Scientists can also use weather satellites to catch the first signs of a dust storm to help forecasters give an even earlier warning.

Although it’s hard to miss dust storms on the ground, they can be difficult to spot from space. That’s because the dust is often the same color as the ground below, so the storm blends in with its surroundings.

However, the weather satellites of the GOES-R Series (short for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series) have an instrument that can spot dust storms. The instrument, called the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI for short), is like a camera that takes pictures with many different filters. By combining and comparing information from these different types of pictures, scientists can spot the beginnings of a dust storm. This allows earlier warnings, which can keep cars, airplanes and people safe.

This animation, created with data from the GOES-16 weather satellite, shows blowing dust over New Mexico and Texas on April 13, 2018. The blowing dust is shown in dark magenta. Credit: NOAA/NESDIS/CIRA

Dust Storms

  • PULL OFF! LIGHTS OFF! FOOT OFF!
    • If you encounter a dust storm while driving, pull off the road immediately.
    • Turn off your headlights and taillights, put your vehicle in “PARK,” and take your foot off the brake (so your brake lights are not illuminated.) Other motorists may tend to follow taillights in an attempt to get through the dust storm, and may strike your vehicle from behind.
    • Stay in the vehicle with your seatbelts buckled and wait for the storm to pass.
  • Dust storms usually last a few minutes and up to an hour at most. Stay where you are until the dust storm passes.
  • Avoid driving into or through a dust storm. If you encounter a dust storm:
    • Immediately check traffic around your vehicle (front, back and to the side) and begin slowing down.
    • Do not wait until poor visibility makes it difficult to safely pull off the roadway — do it as soon as possible. Completely exit the highway if you can.
    • Do not stop in a travel lane or in the emergency lane. Look for a safe place to pull completely off the paved portion of the roadway.
  • Drivers of high-profile vehicles should be especially aware of changing weather conditions and travel at reduced speeds.

Eric Achterberg calmly retrieves the two large plastic bottles that have just fallen off the table and careered towards him across the lab. He staggers back to his seat, avoiding a chair that is now sliding in the other direction.

“Where were we?” he says. The risk of injury from objects flung around by the ocean swell makes it difficult to concentrate on his answers.

Dr Achterberg and his team from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton have given the Guardian exclusive access to a leading research project. They are trying to plug a hole in the understanding of climate change – how dust in the atmosphere affects the climate and oceans.

“There’s a complete lack of data,” says Dr Achterberg. What they find out will help scientists predict global warming patterns more accurately. The research vessel Poseidon, which is on loan from Kiel University in Germany, and the nine scientists on board, are dust-hunting in the eastern Atlantic Ocean between the coast of Senegal and the Cape Verde Islands. This is where gigantic dust clouds from the Sahara embark on a 5,000-mile journey across the Atlantic to South America. On the way they act as atmospheric sunscreen and fertilise the ocean.

Both effects should mitigate climate change, by bouncing heat back into space and by stimulating the growth of algae which, when they die, carry carbon to the sea floor. Charles Darwin commented on the quantities of dust he encountered. “The falling of impalpably fine dust,” he wrote in The Voyage of the Beagle, “was found to have slightly injured the astronomical instruments”.

The dust is also responsible for the spectacular Cape Verde sunsets. What is special about the British expedition is that it will look at the sunscreen and fertiliser effects simultaneously, something that has never been done before. The £600,000 project, which is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, a government research body, involves coordinating samples taken at sea with measurements done from a plane.

Science at sea is notoriously difficult. Dr Achterberg admits that little work was done in the first two days of the cruise. “I was only out of bed for two hours on the first day,” said Polly Hill, a research student at NOC. The German captain uses oompah music to keep him awake on his late shift on the bridge and the chef serves sausage at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Problems

There are many practical problems. To work out the effect of the dust on the plankton, the scientists need precise measurements of elements such as iron and aluminium in the air and water. A change of wind that brings the smoke from the ship’s funnel into the air filter can wipe out an afternoon’s results.

Water samples, too, must be timed to avoid the daily discharge of the ship’s sewerage system. The dust clouds we are following are essential to the food chain in oceans. Even at the surface, where light is plentiful, around a third of the ocean is a virtual desert. Plankton cannot operate because they lack essential nutrients. The rust-coloured Saharan dust provides these and so kick-starts the ecosystem. “For many parts of the ocean, dust is the main nutrient source,” said Dr Achterberg.

So will global warming increase or decrease the quantity of dust in the atmosphere? At the moment the Sahara desert is growing, and so more of the ochre red fertiliser is being pumped into the African sky, but this may not continue.

“The world heating up means more moisture in the atmosphere, so it doesn’t necessarily mean the Sahara getting bigger and drier,” says Phil Williamson, a biological oceanographer at the University of East Anglia who is also involved in the project.

Which way it will go is still being argued over by climate modellers, but the science of what dust does to the ocean is still in its infancy. “The big question is to try to quantify the effects of dust on the whole system,” says Micha Rijkenberg, who studies ocean chemistry at NOC and is also on the cruise.

Hurricane researchers will also eye the data from Poseidon with interest. It is this region where hurricanes like the one that hit New Orleans form. By affecting the sea surface temperature, dust may have a hand in this too.

Dust storms are common over the driest regions of the Earth. The bigger particles of soil or sand whipped up into the atmosphere by wind eventually return to Earth but the tiniest particles stay airborne for much longer, and can be swept thousands of kilometres downwind. Dust storms in the Sahara desert regularly end up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

These clouds of dust have all sorts of influences on weather and climate. They block sunlight, thereby cooling the Earth’s surface, but they also absorb the sun’s heat, causing the atmosphere to warm up. According to researchers at Nasa, temperatures under a dust cloud are typically 1C cooler than normal, similar to the effect of a rain cloud.

In summer, the deserts surrounding the Arabian Sea are the main source of dust clouds in the northern hemisphere. The Indian monsoon winds carry these clouds towards Asia and North Africa. The clouds heading west are augmented by dust from the Sahara. In the southern hemisphere, most of the dust starts from the Australian outback. Scientists estimate that half of the dust in today’s atmosphere might be the result of human activity.

Modelling the movement of these dust storms can help to predict extreme weather. Hurricanes from the Atlantic slam into Florida every year. These storms form off the west coast of Africa but scientists have found in recent years that the hurricane risk is reduced if nascent storms run into dusty air from the Sahara. If meteorologists could predict better how and when a storm will hit a dust cloud, it would give more warning of potential disasters.

Sandstorms

Sandstorm Questions

What is a sandstorm?
A sandstorm refers to a high amount of wind occurring in sandy areas, usually in deserts, where the wind speed is able to lift the top layer of sand from the ground, and push it in every imaginable direction.

What causes a sandstorm?
Wind! Dust storms arise when a gust front or other strong wind blows loose sand and dirt from a dry surface.

What’s the difference between a sandstorm and a dust storm?
The term sandstorm is used most often in the context of desert sandstorms, especially in the Sahara Desert, or places where sand is a more prevalent soil type than dirt or rock, when, in addition to fine particles obscuring visibility, a considerable amount of larger sand particles are blown closer to the surface. The term dust storm is more likely to be used when finer particles are blown long distances, especially when the dust storm affects urban areas.

What is a haboob?
The word “haboob” comes from the Arabic word habb, meaning “wind.” A haboob is a wall of dust as a result of a microburst or downburst. The air forced downward is pushed forward by the front of a thunderstorm cell, dragging dust and debris with it, as it travels across the terrain.

How high can a sandstorm get?
The sand involved in the sandstorm can reach heights of approximately 10-50 feet (3.05-15.24m). Usually, the height of a sandstorm corresponds to wind strength. Dust particles associated with some sandstorms have been found at 5000 feet (1524 m), though these are more rare.

How fast can sandstorms move?
Sandstorms have wind speeds of at least 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers), so they can happen really quickly. One minute they’re not there, and the next minute they’re right next to you!

Where do sandstorms occur?
You’ll mostly find them in dry, hot desert regions. You can also find them in the US, especially in dry and flat regions like Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. They can occur is desert regions across the world.

When do sandstorms occur?
They mostly occur during summer, but can occur in spring too in the United States.

How big are the particles in a sandstorm?
A lot of the particles in a dust storm or sandstorm are between 0.08mm and 1mm which also means 0.0032 and 0.04 inches in size.
How do you navigate during a sandstorm?
It is very dangerous to navigate through a sandstorm, since your ability to see ahead can be severely obstructed. Additionally, sand can get into the nose, eyes, mouth and lungs. If you happen to be caught in a sandstorm protective eyewear like goggles, and wearing a moistened scarf over the nose and mouth are highly recommended.
What are some hazards of a sandstorm?
Sandstorms usually arrives suddenly in the form of an advancing wall of dust and debris which may be miles long and several thousand feet high. They strike with little warning, making driving conditions hazardous. Blinding, choking dust can quickly reduce visibility, causing accidents that may involve chain collisions, creating massive pileups. Sandstorms usually last only a few minutes, but the actions a motorist takes during the storm may be the most important of his or her life.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Science Briefs

Desert Dust, Dust Storms and Climate

By Ron Miller and Ina Tegen — April 1997

Dust storms in three shapes. The whirl. The column. The sheet. In the first the horizon is lost. In the second you are surrounded by ‘waltzing Ginns.’ The third, the sheet, is ‘copper-tinted. Nature seems to be on fire.’

—Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Dust storms occur most frequently over deserts and regions of dry soil, where particles of dirt are loosely bound to the surface. Grains of sand lofted into the air by the wind fall back to the ground within a few hours, but smaller particles remain suspended in the air for a week or more and can be swept thousands of kilometers downwind. Dust from the Sahara desert regularly crosses the Atlantic, causing bright red sunrises and sunsets in Miami, traveling as far as the Caribbean and the Amazon basin. Here we describe our understanding of how desert dust alters the Earth’s surface temperature.

Airborne dust particles, or dust aerosols, alter the climate by intercepting sunlight intended for the surface. By shading the Earth from the sun’s radiation, dust aerosols have the same effect as a rain cloud. The reduction by dust of net radiation at the surface during the months of June through August is shown in Fig. 1. (Net radiation equals the absorbed sunlight minus thermal radiation emitted by the surface back to the atmosphere. At the surface, changes in the net radiation caused by dust are mostly in the solar component.) Because atmospheric dust concentrations are measured at only a few locations, Fig. 1 was created using a computer model that takes into account the global distribution of dry soil, along with the winds that carry the dust away from its source.

Figure 1. Change in net radiation at the surface by desert dust during the Northern Hemisphere summer (June to August). Radiation is expressed in Watts per square meter, a measure of how much energy impinges upon a one-square meter area of the Earth’s surface during each second. The change in surface net radiation is calculated by Tegen et al. (1996).

Between June and August, the deserts surrounding the Arabian Sea are the dominant source of dust aerosols, which are carried to the northeast towards India and Asia by the Indian monsoon winds, as well as to the west over North Africa by the strong westward flow near the surface. This westward plume is augmented by dust from the Sahara and Sahel regions and can be traced across the Atlantic. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Australian outback is the largest source of dust. The region of reduced surface radiation in Fig. 1 is an indicator of the low-level circulation during the Northern Hemisphere summer.

While solar radiation is reduced beneath the dust cloud, the absorption of sunlight by dust particles heats the cloud itself. The dust cloud therefore displaces heating from the Earth’s surface into the atmosphere. In this way, dust aerosols differ from the sulfate aerosols lofted into the stratosphere following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. The latter reflect sunlight back into space, thus reducing the amount of radiative heating both within the atmosphere and at the surface.

The displacement of solar heating away from the surface by dust aerosols alters the Earth’s climate. The average change in surface temperature during June through August resulting from dust aerosols is shown in Fig. 2. This change is calculated by comparing two versions of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies computer climate model, one including the effect of dust aerosols and the other omitting that effect. Fig. 2 shows that beneath the dust cloud, temperatures at the surface are typically reduced by 1°C. This is similar to the effect of a rain cloud passing overhead, which can cause a drop in temperature in response to the diminished sunlight. However, in some regions, the atmosphere adjusts to this cooling by bringing heat from surrounding warmer regions, returning the temperature to its original value. This occurs over the Arabian Sea, where the temperature remains unchanged under the dust cloud, despite the large reduction in surface radiation (Fig. 1).

Note also that there is cooling far downwind of the Arabian dust cloud, extending from northern Asia to the Pacific and North America. Such cooling is possible because of the atmospheric circulation that connects regions beneath the dust cloud to regions downwind. It is not currently well-understood why cooling occurs in one region downwind of the dust cloud and not another.

Figure 2. Change in surface temperature by desert dust between June and August. The units are degrees Celsius.

So far, we have assumed that any differences between the two computer simulations, such as the difference in surface temperature shown in Fig. 2, are the result of adding the radiative effect of dust to only one model. However, another potential source of difference arises from the atmospheric fluctuations that are simulated by each model. Consider, for example, the possibility that several consecutive summers may be unusually warm. An average temperature constructed during this period would overestimate the true climatological temperature that would be recognized over a longer period of time. Even if dust were absent from both models, an extended heat wave could occur in one model and not the other, resulting in a difference in average temperature. As the models continue to run, the average temperature of each simulation will approach the true average, reducing the difference to zero. Nonetheless, we must still distinguish cooling caused by the dust cloud from differences in temperature that occur simply because the simulations are insufficiently long for the true average to emerge.

A number of statistical tests designed to isolate changes forced by dust aerosols suggest that the changes in surface temperature over Australia and most of the Northern Hemisphere are likely to be the result of the dust cloud. In contrast, temperature changes along the Antarctic coastline are more likely the result of fluctuations within the model that are unrelated to dust.

In summary, dust aerosols, lofted into the air by the wind-erosion of dry, loosely-packed soil, can lead to cooling of the surface below. However, the winds that extend this cooling to regions far beyond the dust cloud can also bring in warm air beneath the cloud itself, thus offsetting the effect of diminished sunlight, as occurs over the Arabian Sea.

Approximately half of the dust in today’s atmosphere may be the result of changes to the environment caused by human activity, including agriculture, overgrazing, and the cutting down of forests. Thus, a significant part of the temperature change in Fig. 2 has occurred within this century. The cooling due to dust may partially obscure the warming that is attributed to increasing greenhouse gases, such as CO2. In a future study, we hope to isolate the temperature change resulting from anthropogenic dust aerosols, so that the greenhouse temperature signal can be detected with greater confidence.

Reference

Miller, R., and I. Tegen 1998. Climate response to mineral dust aerosols. J. Climate 11, 3247-3267.

Miller, R., and I. Tegen. 1997, submitted. Interaction of mineral dust aerosols with a tropical direct circulation. J. Climate.

Tegen, I., A.A. Lacis and I. Fung 1996. Modeling of particle size distribution and its influence in the radiative properties of mineral dust aerosol. Nature 380, 419-422.

Contact

Please address all inquiries about this research to Dr. Ron Miller.

How Desert Survival Works

So you’re doing a good job in the heat and you’ve managed to avoid your biting and stinging enemies. You’re home free, right? Not so fast. There are a couple more natural dangers that may come your way: sandstorms and flash floods.

Sandstorms are violent wind storms that occur often in the desert. In the Middle East, sandstorms can crop up and stay there for up to three months. While these winds won’t kill you, they frequently cause auto accidents as a result of the blinding effect of the sand. If you’re driving and a sandstorm occurs, pull over immediately, turn off your car and headlights and turn on your flashing hazard lights. If you’re on foot, put on goggles or sunglasses if you have them and find a large rock to crouch behind. If there’s a large dune nearby, get to higher ground only if there’s no lightning accompanying the storm. Tie a bandanna or other piece of cloth around your face and mouth. If you have spare water, wet the cloth beforehand. If you don’t have goggles or sunglasses, wrap the cloth over your eyes as well and sit tight. These winds vary widely in duration — it may only last a few minutes, so don’t panic.

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This SUV owner probably wishes she had read this article before heading off-road. Karl Weatherly/Getty Images

Sandstorm conditions are also ideal for rain storms, in which case flash flooding becomes a threat. The desert sand doesn’t soak up water quickly, so heavy rains can produce flood conditions very quickly and without warning. Dry channels, ditches and lake beds will fill quickly and the water can be strong and violent — sometimes creating a wall of water 10 to 30 feet high. Remarkably, more people drown in the desert than die of thirst . Because of the threat of a flash flood, you should never rest or sleep in ditches or dry creeks — even if it doesn’t look like rain. Desert thunderstorms come on quickly and without warning and can uproot trees and move boulders. A rain storm in Las Vegas in 1999 swept cars away, killed two people, injured many others and caused millions of dollars in property damage .

In the event of a flash flood, get to higher ground as fast as you can and avoid standing near rocks or trees. It’s best to get 30 to 40 feet higher than the nearest low point. If you’re in your car, pull over and put on your hazard lights until the rain has passed. If the rain continues and rises up the car, abandon the vehicle and move to high ground on foot. These storms are rough, but usually short-lived.

Your best bet for surviving a flash flood is to keep an eye out and anticipate its arrival. Most people who die in these floods are caught off guard. Pay attention to weather reports and be alert for thunder and lightening in your area. If you suspect a storm is coming, get to high ground and wait it out.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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Dust storms in the Sahara are killing kids half a continent away

It’s not news that air pollution is really bad for people’s health. A few recent studies have only hammered that point home.

One paper looked at the effects of diesel cars that were supposed to meet emissions guidelines — but in fact did not — and suggested that even the slight increase in air pollution from one cheating car meant more kids hospitalized and more babies born prematurely. Another study found that air pollution worsens dementia substantially.

Add a new NBER working paper from Stanford environmental researcher Sam Heft-Neal and colleagues to the pile of research sounding the alarm on air pollution. The paper looks at the health dangers of air pollution from a source we rarely think about: desert dust. Titled “Air Pollution and Infant Mortality: Evidence from Saharan Dust,” the study presents a stunning finding: Poor air quality in areas affected by dust from the Sahara desert leads to a 22 percent increase in infant mortality.

These numbers aren’t wildly out of line with research about the effects of air pollution on infant mortality from other studies conducted in richer countries. But their implications are enormous. If dust from the Sahara is killing as many kids as the working paper suggests, then we need to devote more attention to it. And perhaps extreme measures that have long been dismissed as excessive and extraordinarily expensive — measures like, as the paper proposes, watering the desert so it doesn’t get so dusty — would actually be a fairly cost-effective way to save kids’ lives.

At the very least, this latest study should bolster the case that air pollution is a high-impact and yet oddly neglected global problem.

Air pollution really, really matters

Air pollution reduces life expectancy for everyone, but it’s particularly hard on children.

“Poor air quality is a known determinant of poor health outcomes, with even modest improvements in air quality likely to save millions of premature deaths annually,” the working paper notes.

But we’ve only recently learned more about air pollution, and so there are lots of important research questions that haven’t been answered yet. For example, how much sickness and death is caused by any specific source of pollution (like, say, Saharan dust)?

One good way to study that is with a “quasi-experimental” design that takes advantage of ways a specific source of pollution will vary in the environment (different states might have different regulations, or wind patterns might douse one half of a city in more pollution from a factory than the other half). With a good research design, these studies can isolate the effects of a specific pollution source. Research like this is being conducted in developed countries.

This paper tries to take the same approach to estimate the effects of an unexpected air pollution source: dust from the Bodélé Depression, the area of the Sahara that is the single largest source of dust emissions in the world.

We might not usually think of dust when we think of air pollution. But what makes pollution so bad for us is the small particles that settle in our lungs when they’re not supposed to be there. And those particles are dangerous whether they’re from cigarettes, factory smoke, or dust (though of course some of the specific effects might be different). Dust is a form of air pollution — and, the study finds, a deadly one.

The researchers use satellite data to look at dust emission events in the desert — instances where weather patterns kicked up more dust than usual and swept it into the air. They combine that data with household survey data of about 1 million births across the continent of Africa.

The findings show that an increase of 10 micrograms per cubic meter in small particulate matter — for reference, an eyelash weighs about 40 micrograms and a cubic meter is about the space under your dining table — causes a 22 percent rise in infant mortality across Africa. Since in much of West Africa the amount of small particulate matter in the air is mostly a product of activity in the Bodélé Depression, that means somehow handling the dust from the Bodélé Depression could save a lot of lives.

One idea to do so sounds outlandish on its face: watering the desert. Unrealistic though it may sound, the researchers conclude it could actually be a cost-effective intervention. They calculate that this could save lives for about $60 per year of life saved, and point out that even if they’re wrong by a factor of five, that’d still be impressive cost-effectiveness.

I’d take that with a grain of salt; my experience with development interventions is that they typically, for many complicated reasons, turn out to be much less cost-effective than they look in the first analysis. But as the authors observe, even if their estimate is too optimistic, the intervention would still appear to be in the range of cost-effectiveness that makes it worth pursuing.

This might become more urgent as time goes on, because climate change will affect rainfall patterns in the Sahara as well as how dust gets distributed. The researchers attempt to model the effects of climate change, but our significant uncertainty about how rainfall patterns in the region will be affected by climate change makes it hard to say what to expect: The dust problem could get better, or it could get much worse.

Now that we have reason to suspect many lives are at stake from these desert rainfall patterns, hopefully additional research can help reduce the uncertainty there — and further explore the possibility of environmental management to control dust, reduce air pollution, and save lives across West Africa.

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