Studying Saharan Dust Storms

Scientists from the University of Leeds will set out to study the massive Saharan desert storms.

The gigantic storms, known as haboobs, can whip up a solid wall of dust 1,000 metres high and move at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Unsurprisingly then, these storms are one of the main sources of atmospheric dust.

“Dust is a really important player in the climate system,” said Project leader Dr Peter Knippertz, of the University of Leeds. “For example, dust from the Sahara provides most of the nutrients needed to fertilise the Amazon rainforest. But the harsh desert environment of the Sahara means very few measurements have ever been made there.”

In fact, dust plays a surprisingly number of roles in our planet’s environment. Dust is one of the main sources of iron to the oceans where it is important in the formation of CO2-guzzling phytoplankton. In the atmosphere, dust particles affect how much energy from the sun enters and leaves the planet, which has a longer-term impact on climate, and dust also deteriorates overall air quality and therefore has direct implications for human health.

“We don’t know for sure how much of the dust within these storms ends up in the atmosphere and how much returns to earth once the winds have died down,” Dr Knippertz said. “This project will help us to answer this question and to produce a comprehensive representation of the global dust cycle with the view to developing more accurate models.”

The University of Leeds team will lead a £1m project which will examine data from haboob storms from recent and future international field campaigns to the Sahara and its surroundings. On top of the haboobs, smaller storms known as dust devils and fast moving ribbons of air known as low-level jets will be studied as well.

With so many possible impacts on the planet’s environment, such a study will be crucial to understanding the role the Saharan dust storms play on the global dust cycle, which itself is poorly understood and as a result is often not included in climate models.

“Ultimately the study will help to eliminate some of the uncertainties in predicting climate, weather and the impacts on human health.”

Source: University of Leeds
Image Source: US DOF

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