Dust storms escalate in western U.S., affect ecosystems

This year 11 serious dust storms have hit the Colorado Rockies – and it’s only April. The storms affect snow melt, air quality and local vegetation.

Yesterday the Washington Post ran a story about the dust storms, the factors contributing to them and the impacts they have on people and the environment.

The 11 storms are a record for the six years researchers have followed the phenomenon. The Post’s Juliet Eilperin writes, “The dust storms are a harbinger of a broader phenomenon, researchers say, as global warming translates into less precipitation and a population boom intensifies the activities that are disturbing the dust in the first place.”

A USGS scientist predicts that by 2050, the region’s soil will be in a Dust-Bowl condition.

How does all this dust affect the ecosystems? Dust on the snowpack cause the snow to melt more quickly, releasing lots of water into the ecosystem two-to-four weeks before crops need it. So grain and potato farmers have trouble irrigating their crops, because the snow water’s all gone by time they need it.

Lastly, the storms reduce air quality. In Arizona’s Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and Scottsdale, officials are fighting the dust problem by cracking down on off-road vehicles and unpaved roads.

Why so many dust storms now? Eilperin notes, “the fact that so much dust is on the move reflects that across vast areas, soil is being loosened by off-road vehicles, livestock grazing, and road development for oil and gas production, much of it on public land.”

Advocates for off-road vehicles, cattle owners and the oil and gas industry all play down the role their groups play in the dust problem. However, in an interview last summer with USDA scientist Debra Peters, she noted how small impacts can accumulate to create large effects — the way the combined actions of individual farmers helped cause the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Something similar appears to be happening here. Maybe it will take a Dust Bowl or a big dust storm every week to make the special-interest groups acknowledge that their actions are detrimental to the common good.

April 24, 2009

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