Aeolian Dust in Dryland Landscapes of the Western United States

Science Center Objects

Dust emission caused by wind erosion has received considerable attention because of its far-reaching effects on ecosystems, including the loss of nutrients and water-holding capacity from source areas, changes to climate and global energy balance in areas where dust is entrained in the atmosphere, fertilization of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, in addition to decreases in snow albedo, causing earlier and faster snowmelt and river runoff in sink areas. Dust emission has also attracted interest due to its socioeconomic consequences, including property damage, declines in agricultural productivity, and health and safety hazards. Given the potentially large impact of dust emission, it is crucial to understand the amounts and sources of dust emission, the physical and chemical properties of dust, and future scenarios of wind erosion.

Building clearly seen (top panel) and the same building obscured by a dust storm (bottom panel).
Dust storm in Moab, UT (2010). (Credit: USGS. Public domain.)

Background & Importance

Atmospheric dust caused by wind erosion has far-reaching effects on dryland ecosystems of the western U.S., including the redistribution of nutrients, changes to climate and global energy balance, and decreases in downwind mountain snowpack albedo, which causes earlier and faster snowmelt and river runoff. Dust also has socioeconomic consequences that include property damage, changes to agricultural productivity, and implications for air quality and human health. We are working to understand the factors that contribute to dust emission, the locations of emission and deposition, the physical and chemical properties of dust, and the prospects for future dust emission.

General Methods

A major concentration of this work is combining empirical and modeling approaches to examine the sources and magnitude of dust emission under current conditions and under future climate and land-use change scenarios.

Important Results

We have developed simple tools scientists and managers can use to assess wind erosion vulnerability of a site, established a dust-monitoring network in the Four Corners region to better understand total atmospheric particulate loads and compare methods to assess deposition dynamics in space and time, and have characterized the physical and chemical properties of dust to better understand how dust influences atmospheric properties, ecosystem functions, and human health.

Future Directions

Future work includes: 1) developing wind erosion vulnerability maps at local to regional scales, and 2) understanding the synergy between wind and water erosion.

A dust storm heading directly towards the front of a vehicle driving down a road.
Dust storm near Winslow, Arizona reduces roadside visibility, which can lead to vehicle collisions (2011).(Credit: Seth Munson, USGS. Public domain.)