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Dust particles can carry a hefty cost

July 11, 2013

by Meg Lowman

Not everything that counts can be counted.
—Albert Einstein

Our daily lives are surrounded by billions of unwelcome aliens that constantly engulf us, and yet we know next to nothing about them. They are technically the product of aeolian (wind-driven) processes, otherwise known as “dust.”

Dust is everywhere – sprinkled onto our food, inhaled into our lungs, caked on car bodies and vegetation, and sometimes entirely obliterating the horizon when drought or fires create enormous clouds of particles. The cost of dust is enormous – everything from car washes, to asthma medication, to expensive construction that attempts to seal buildings, to irrigation systems minimizing loss of topsoil.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

During the 1930s, the Great Plains experienced one of America’s most severe environmental catastrophes called the Dust Bowl era. In this case, accelerated agricultural cultivation, combined with a dry spell, led to significant increases in wind erosion rates, and an estimated 800 million metric tons of topsoil simply blew away. Loss of topsoil is expensive, and from that event, approximately 90 million hectares of farmland were degraded.

When dust enters the air column, it may travel many miles, ending up as a nuisance on your computer screen, causing respiratory illnesses, infiltrating delicate machinery or valuable artworks, or passively falling into lakes and oceans, degrading water quality. In California, off-road recreational vehicle usage rose from almost none in 1960 to 10 million user-days in 2006, generating over 2.5 metric tons of dust per year. Such increased land uses by humans accelerate the production of dust, which in turn has expensive consequences.

Scientists now recognize that dust not only costs billions of dollars per year in damage to technology, health, water quality and agriculture, but it also creates uncertainty in climate change models. At the small scale of individual plants, photosynthesis is reduced when sunlight can’t reach leaf surfaces through a coat of dust. On a larger scale, dust storms reflect heat away from land; alternatively, when dust settles on snow and ice, its darker coloration accelerates melting rates. These opposing forces have the potential to alter local climate, as well as to affect larger-scale trends of ecosystem health.

In the not-too-distant future, monitoring dust emissions may become a new profession. In the same way that we police automobile speeds, monitor food ingredients, or require airport security, a new breed of engineer may need to calculate dust movements, and limit excessive deployment of particles into the air column.

The sobering reality is that dust-related catastrophes are accelerating, as well as their cost to both human and planetary health.

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