Geography of dust storms


Dust storms and deflated fine-grained aeolian mineral particles (<62.5 μm) are subjects of growing interest due to their multiple influences on climatic and other environmental processes (Harrison, S.P. et al. 2001; Kohfeld, K.E. and Tegen, I. 2007; Maher, B.A. et al. 2010; Pósfai, M. and Buseck, P.R. 2010; Shao, Y. et al. 2011). Wind-blown dust absorbs, scatters and reflects both the incoming shortwave solar and the outgoing longwave radiation, so modifies the energy-balance of our planet. Mineral particles can change the albedo of surface (Arimoto, R. 2001), cloud-formation processes (Rosenfeld, D. et al. 2001; Sassen, K. et al. 2003), chemical properties of precipitation (Roda, F. et al. 1993; Rogora, M. et al. 2004) and also have an effect on biogeochemical cycles through Fe fertilization of iron-limited oceanic ecosystems (Ridgewell, A.J. 2002). The far-travelled dust material incorporates into the soil-system and increases its clay and fine-silt components even in distant areas. And at last but not least, the increased atmospheric concentration of PM10 and PM2.5 particles has major effects on human health.
The global annual dust emission of mineral dust deflated from arid-semiarid areas is estimated between 1 and 3 billion of tonnes annually (Tegen, I. et al. 1996; Ginoux, P.M. et al. 2001; Zender, C.S. et al. 2003). Dust loadings of a given area have large annual and interannual variability controlled by several climatic and other environmental changes.
The monitoring of dust storms and amount of emitted atmospheric dust can be indicative of these changes. In some periods of the Earth’s history, the intensity and frequency of dust storms could have increased by several orders of magnitude compared to the present situation (Mahowald, N. et al. 1999, 2006; Kohfeld and Harrison, S.P. 2001). Thus, dust records of accumulated aeolian dust deposits (red clay and loess deposits; dust samples of deep-sea sediments; terrestrial material in ice-cores) are of significant importance in reconstructing past climatic and environmental processes, circulation patterns, dust source areas and emissions (Pye, K. 1987, 1995; Pécsi, M. and Schweitzer, F. 1995; Kis, É. and Schweitzer, F. 2010; Kis, É. et al. 2011; Újvári, G. et al. 2012).

Global spatial distribution of dust storms

The global mean map of the investigation period (1979–2011) shows the spatial distribution of the most important dust source areas. These are situated mainly in the desert, semi-desert regions, where dry, unconsolidated and unprotected fine-grained sediments can be easily lifted by the wind into the atmosphere. Albeit, the mechanisms responsible for silt production under warm-dry conditions have been a matter of scientific debate for many years, triggered by the absence of extent loess regions in the marginal zones of major deserts. However, recent observations have shown that aeolian and fluvial abrasion, salt and thermal fatigue weathering may also produce large quantity of silt-sized material. Various geomorphological environments (e.g. dry- and salt lakes, playas, wadis, ephemeral streams, alluvial fans) are also suitable for substantial dust generation (Assallay, A.M. et al. 1998; Wright, J.S. 2001; Smith, B.J. et al. 2002). It is important, that water (transportation by ephemeral streams or silt-storage in lacustrine environments) plays substantial role in formation of mineral dust particles, even in arid zones. 
Thus, the absence of extensive loess belt around hot desert regions cannot be explained by the insufficient amount of silt-sized material, it is much more likely that loess-formation was prohibited by lack of available vegetation traps for dust. However, long-range transport of small-dust particles (<20μm) with longer atmospheric residence time could have played some role in distant loess-formation processes; e.g. Saharan dust addition to Central and South European loess deposits (Cremaschi, M. 1990; Stuut, J-B. et al. 2009). 
As it is indicated by the thick loess blankets, during Pleistocene glacial periods the great ice caps produced huge amount of silty material formed by glacial grinding, but nowadays the low- and mid-latitude arid regions are regarded as the main dust source areas. Due to the spatial availability of the TOMS AI measurements (70°N–70°S), the artic regions with high aerosol emissions are not well represented at the mean maps. The high aerosol values in some equatorial regions and in East Asia are attributable to biomass burning and industrial pollution.
It is clearly visible, that major sources are creating a more or less continuous region from the west coast of North Africa, through the Middle East into the direction of Central Asia. This is the so called “Global Dust Belt” (Prospero, J.M. et al. 2002). The average intensity of dust emission and annual frequency of dust storms outside the dust belt are relatively low, concentrated in small distinct areas. The dominance of the source areas located in the dust belt could be noticed much more on the mean TOMS AI distribution diagrams.

Temporal distribution of dust storms

The global seasonal cycles of dust storms can be analysed by using the monthly mean aerosol maps. The source areas show large temporal variations in their dust emissions, related to various synoptic meteorological and local environmental factors (e.g. distribution of precipitation, thermal convectivity and wind patterns, seasonality of cyclogenesis and other synoptic patterns, vegetation periods etc.). In generally, it can be stated that in arid areas the seasonal maxima of dust entrainment occur typically during spring and summer, in the periods of highest wind-strengths and thermal convective activity. At some semi-arid and sub-humid, mid-latitude areas the peak of dust activity is at early spring (or late winter) before the vegetation-period, when fields are ploughed and the snow-cover has melted.

Saharan, Arabian and Asian dust source areas

The appropriate spatial resolution of the satellite measurements allow us to identify distinct source areas on regional scale within the above mentioned major dust source domains and to investigate their common geomorphological and sedimentary environment. The seasonality patterns of all sources were determined by the analysis of regional time-series data. The temporal characteristics of the regions make it possible to assess typical meteorological conditions favourable for dust emission.
The most intensive and most important dust source areas are situated in the Sahara (and partly in the Sahelian region), responsible for 50–70% of the global mineral dust emission (Ginoux, P.M. et al. 2001; Miller, R.L. et al. 2004). Dust activity of North African sources shows large temporal variability.
The second largest dust activity (after the Sahara) can be observed in the Arabian Domain, in the Middle East. Dust plumes cover large areas almost all year long at the Arabian Peninsula and at the Mesopotamian Plain.
Arid-semiarid endorheic basins among high mountain belts, extensive flat terrains, deserts and hyper-continental climate provide suitable conditions for dust emission at several regions of the Asian Domain. Anthropogenic factors also play important role at some places, where the unreasonable constructions of irrigation channels and other agricultural activities have enhanced the dust activity by several orders of magnitude during recent decades.
The most prominent dust sources of SW Asia are associated to shallow saline and dry lakes situated in closed basins, depressions between high mountainous belts and are fed by fine-grained material from these neighbouring elevated regions.

North American dust source areas

Dust activity in the region is visible on TOMS aerosol maps from March to August in the SW part of the United States and in northern Mexico. Several isolated source regions are situated in the Great Basin bordered by high mountain ranges of Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada and Cascades running parallel to the Pacific coast of North America. The internal drainage system of the contiguous intermountain highland basins can be characterized by distinct salt flats, playas, shallow lakes and deep alluvial deposits of fans (Muhs, D.R. in press).

South American dust source areas

Three different clusters of dust source areas can be identified by the TOMS AI maps in South America. 

South African dust source areas

Despite to the fact that, there is seasonally huge amount of aerosol particles in South African atmosphere, this is primary related to biomass burnings, and dust emission is restricted to two, relatively small but fairly effective source areas. 

Australian dust source areas

Dust emission of Australia can be connected to one dominant and three weaker source areas.


Analyses of NASA’s TOMS aerosol measurements have demonstrated that the spatial distribution of dust storms are associated to specific geomorphological environments, while emissions show large seasonal variability related to regional meteorological conditions. Areas with high TOMS AI values are lying in arid-semiarid regions, mostly in geomorphological depressions or at flanks of high mountains. The fine-grained dust material of the sources is the product of former fluvial or lacustrine sedimentary environments. Most of the major sources are situated on remnants of large Pleistocene pluvial lakes, which are nowadays almost totally dried up. The hardened surface of ancient lakebeds can disrupt by bombardment of larger particles, and so the barren deep alluvial deposits are very susceptible to wind erosion. Playas, sabkhas, pans and other ephemeral salt lakes and flats bordered by large sand seas are the largest and most persistent dust source areas of our planet.


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