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: