Are Supersize Dust Storms The New Normal for Southwest?

phoenix dust storm photo

Photo by Ms. Phoenix via Flickr CC

After the massive dust storm that hit Phoenix, Arizona, some people are wondering if this is going to be the new normal for the arid southwestern US. Storms are getting bigger and weather is getting weirder, but it could all be part of a bigger change. As Wired reports of Arizona's storm last week, "The storm resulted from thunderstorm-cooled air plummeting into the ground like mist pouring from an open freezer, only exponentially more powerful. Combine those winds with extremely dry conditions, and the result was a wall of dust 100 miles wide and 5,000 feet high."

If you check out some of the photos from Flickr users, you'll see the dust storm was no joke.

So will a warming climate mean these giant dust storms become more common? Climate Central reports on KQED:

As Chris Castro and Dave Gutzler write, there is still a lot of uncertainty about how the monsoon might change, if at all, because "the current generation of global climate models doesn't come close to any consensus as to what the expectation is for a changed monsoon." In the past 100 years, there hasn't been a detectable change in how variable the monsoon can be. However, they warn, warmer climates tend to reinforce the monsoon. As global temperatures increase with increasing greenhouse gas emissions, scientists predict the American Southwest will see a corresponding rise in temperatures, by 4-10°F, in the coming decades.

As for the dust, new research suggests increasing temperatures in the Southwest (and specifically along the Colorado Plateau) could create more dust in the region. Hotter average temperatures mean the region could become even drier than it is already, making it harder for perennial grasses and plants to thrive. Without these grasses to keep the soil intact, it's a lot easier for wind to pick the dust up off the ground. Even though the monsoons bring rainfall that can tamp some of the dust down, clouds like the one that formed on Tuesday stir up ahead of the rain, so drier ground in general could still contribute to these monstrous haboobs.

Warmer global temperatures won't necessarily equate to bigger dust storms, since there are several factors at play. If the grasses can continue to thrive, dust storms on this scale can hopefully continue to be an unusual occurrance. However, hotter temperatures do make it tougher for the grasses to flourish, and that is problematic. There is also another factor at play. As Wired points out, "The researchers also found that so-called biological soil crusts, a little-studied layer of lichen and bacteria found in arid western regions, play a surprisingly large role in preventing erosion. Just a few millimeters thick, these crusts are extraordinarily sensitive, and can take decades to recover from a mere footprint."

While the crusts are severely damaged by livestock hoof-prints, tire tracks, and other impacts -- taking years, even decades to recover -- the crusts are not impacted by rising temperatures or drier weather. Protecting these biological crusts could be as much a part of preventing supersize dust storms as keeping the grasslands and plant life in tact. If anything, the dust storm in Arizona and the attention it brought to climate change and shifting weather patterns has helped to highlight the complexity of our planet, and the many factors that come together to create, or avoid, one giant haboob.

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