Condensation Nuclei

Ecology Matters by Duke Vasey

“Where the Wind Blows” appeared in the December 1996; Scientific American Magazine-- and got me thinking about the way dust alters the environment and affects the health of people, animals and plants.

In 1957 I was assigned to Seoul, Korea in the middle of a gigantic dust storm that the locals claimed was “Asian Dust (also yellow dust, yellow sand, yellow wind or China dust storms) a seasonal disaster that affects much of East Asia, in the springtime.

The dust comes from the desert of Mongolia where the wind gathers it up and then spreads to the eastern countries. The winds hurricane through China, Japan and occasionally Russia. Sometimes, the dust storms reach the east side of the United States and have become a serious problem, through the past years, because of the heavy pollution.”

In South Korea, dust was everywhere, burrowing under beds, piling up on windowsills, clogging filters and machinery, irritating eyes, noses and lungs. When I related my experience to a Colonel now serving in Kabul, Afghanistan, he sent photo’s of huge dust storms showing enormous masses of the stuff--fine grains of soil, sand, smoke, soot, sea salt and other tiny particles, both seen and unseen—that pervade their air, land and water.

Fifty-two years after my initial exposure to the stuff in South Korea, environmental scientists are increasingly recognizing dust as both a major environmental driver and a source of uncertainty for climate models. For more on this, Jason Field, a soil researcher at the University of Arizona in Tucson, co-authored of "The Ecology of Dust," and is published in the latest edition of the journal "Frontiers of Ecology and Environment."

Karen Kohfeld, an environmental scientist at Queens College in Flushing, N.Y., wrote in "Advances in Science," a publication of the Royal Society of London that blackening snow and ice, dust even may have contributed to the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago and that the amount of dust traveling through the atmosphere is huge.

"Although these individual particles are often invisible to the naked eye, billions of tons of material are transported every year" through the air, she said. "Some of these transport events are even visible from space."

Dust plays a complex role in the environment. Some of its effects are benign. Unlike Carbon Dioxide (CO2), a prime culprit in global warming, most airborne dust particles turn back the sun's rays and cool the planet and carries chemical nutrients that help agriculture.

"Dust can be an important and even in some locations an essential parent material for soils," said Daniel Muhs, a researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, who believes that windblown dust from Africa "…may be critical in sustaining vegetation…." in the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico and the southeastern United States.

"Dust delivered to the oceans may also provide some essential nutrients, especially iron, for microscopic marine plants that draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, another counterbalance to greenhouse gas warming….” but also cause silicosis, a serious lung disease and asthma.

Like other airborne particles, dust can spread harmful pollutants around the world. "The atmosphere connects all regions of the globe and pollution emission within any country can affect populations and ecosystems well beyond national borders," Charles Kolb, chief executive officer of Aerodyne Research in Boston, wrote in a report published in October by the "National Academies of Science."

Kolb called fine particles, particularly smoke and road dust, "the deadliest air pollutant," responsible for about 348,000 deaths in 25 European countries annually and the heavy loads of fine particles we find in many large urban areas exacerbate heart problems and also cause deaths from lung cancer and emphysema.”


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