The U.S. Geological Survey led a study last year that found, “Drier conditions projected to result from climate change in the Southwest will likely reduce perennial vegetation cover and result in increased dust storm activity in the future.”
Dust-Bowlification’s threat to food security is probably the biggest impact that climate change will have on most people for most of this century, as I discussed in my 2011 Nature article, “The Next Dust Bowl.”
And dust storms can be an amplifying feedback for droughts and dust storms, as dust storm expert William Sprigg, a professor in the University of Arizona’s Institute of Atmospheric Physics, explained:
Sprigg mentioned a further danger posed by dust storms in the dry region: their potential to self-propagate. As dust settles on the Rocky Mountains, it speeds up the snowpack’s melt, which then depletes the amount of water available in the summer. The result could be a worsening drought and increased chances of further dust storms. “It’s a bad cycle,” he said.
But dust poses direct dangers to human health, that “go far beyond common respiratory ailments,” according to Sprigg.
Dust storms carry a noxious mix of fungi, heavy metals from pollution, fertilizers, stockyard fecal matter, chemicals and bacteria, which can cause cardiovascular disease, eye diseases and other illnesses.
And while bigger, more frequent storms are only likely to increase the number of people suffering from diseases that health officials know are linked to dust, and possibly amplify their effects, medical science still does not have an accurate accounting of the full effects of breathing those pathogens.
A 1935 study, in Public Health Reports, “Dust Storms and Their Possible Effect on Health” concluded:
The “immediate” effects are shown in the increase in morbidity and mortality from the acute infections of the respiratory tract.
The study also reported Kansas experienced its “most severe measles epidemic,” together with “abnormally high rates of strep throat, respiratory problems, eye infections and infant mortality during the intense dust storms that struck from February to May of that year.” HuffPost notes:
The same regions that were affected then — from New Mexico to the Dakotas — may be at greatest risk from dust storms in the future, said Dale Griffin, an environmental health microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Griffin points to the unsustainable strip farming methods of the 1920s and ’30s, and consecutive years of desiccating heat and high winds that combined to devastate a large swath of the country. And he agrees with Sprigg that conditions today could favor more of the same….
“Because of climate change, it looks like we’re possibly shifting into a phase similar to what occurred in the 1930s, or worse,” said Griffin. “We may be seeing an increase in dust storms that could affect human health.”
Texas and Oregon are among the regions already seeing a rise in such events. Haboobs — severe thunderstorms that kick up massive amounts of dust — have blanketed Phoenix more frequently in recent years, including one headline-grabber last July.
Here’s a time-lapse video of that amazing Phoenix haboob:
It’s no surprise a storm like that might harm people. The key point is, as Sprigg said, “Anything that is loose on the soil is going to be picked up by these storms.” And that can include a lot of diseases:
In the southwest, one airborne hazard gaining significant attention is valley fever. A debilitating and sometimes fatal infection, it is contracted from fungal spores naturally present in the region’s soil. Could dust storms send these spores into the air and into the lungs of residents? Sprigg is currently investigating a possible connection between last year’s haboobs and subsequent infections. Such links haven’t been well studied, he said, because people had assumed that the sun’s ultraviolet rays would kill any airborne microbes. But it seems that the dust particles themselves provide a shield for their passengers, explained Sprigg, who is collaborating on a system to predict when dust storms will occur in order to alert area residents, schools and traffic cops.
Other parts of the world are even more familiar with dust storms and their dangers.
The region of Africa between Senegal and Ethiopia has long been subject to severe meningitis epidemics, which research now suggests is at least partially linked to dust storms. In Asia, asthma and other children’s respiratory problems have been found to be more common the week after dust storms.
And let’s not forget the health impact caused by poor visibility during the storm:
Traffic accidents are common in dust storms, many involving fatalities. Sprigg’s research shows that between 2001 and 2005, dust storms were responsible for 44 deaths in 2,323 traffic accidents in New Mexico, and 15 deaths in 614 accidents in Arizona.
This video from Australia makes clear why driving in a dust storm is not a good idea:
It’s good to see publications like USA Today reporting on the health impacts of dust storms and on what’s to come if we are foolish enough to ignore the warnings:
Bill DeBuys, a New Mexico author and conservationist, says climate change must be considered as part of the equation.
“Greater heat in the atmosphere is like a ballplayer on steroids,” he said. “Storms can be more powerful and more erratic.”
DeBuys, whose latest book is called A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, said the effects of climate change “are a one-way train.”
“People in Phoenix can expect more and more dust storms if these issues are not addressed,” he said.
- NBC: “The Dust Storm that Swallowed Up an American City”
- Interview: Author William deBuys On Climate Change In The Southwest