Scientists are hoping to discover how dust storms could cool or heat the planet, with an ambitious mission to the International Space Station.
The Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation project will send a specially built scientific instrument to the ISS on a Space X rocket on June 7.
Engineers will use a robotic arm to attach a new imaging spectrometer — an instrument that can accurately measure different wavelengths of light — to the ISS.
It will take more than a billion measurements of the Earth to help scientists understand global movements of dust.
The measurements it provides will help to fill a void in available data on the world's arid regions, and could let researchers help to predict when dust storms will arrive, protecting people from their harmful impact.
Scientists also think they will finally be able to find out whether dust in the Earth's atmosphere helps to heat or cool the planet
Dust to dust
About two billion tonnes of dust are blown into the atmosphere every year, but not all of that is the same.
Dr Robert Green, principal scientist on the project at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said finding out what makes up a dust storm was a top priority for the mission.
“Our job is to understand the composition of the materials that ended up in the dust storms first, which is currently poorly known,” Dr Green told The National. “And that can impact human health.”
The colour and content of dust particles can play a huge part in what effect they have on the planet.
“When it blows into the atmosphere, if it's light-coloured dust, it reflects sunlight back into space and cools our planet,” Dr Green said.
“If it's dark-coloured dust, maybe with iron oxide, it heats our planet.”
He said the same phenomenon could also affect regional climates.
A pioneering project in Saudi Arabia has already used satellite images to show this phenomenon in action, proving dust from the Empty Quarter helps to keep the Red Sea cool, in turn, preventing drought.
Dust also plays a vital role in the functioning of many ecosystems.
Nasa research published in 2015 showed that dust from the Sahara desert — swept up and carried far and wide by the wind — was providing nutrients to the Amazon rainforest and feeding organisms in the Atlantic Ocean.
Dust even provides some of the materials for coral reefs to grow.
Mitigating the damage
Dust can also, of course, have a harmful effect.
More than 5,000 people were admitted to hospital and one killed in Iraq this month after a huge dust storm hit Iraq, while another halted flights in Kuwait this week.
A 2020 World Bank study found extreme dust storms are costing the Mena region $150 billion a year.
The findings of the project will be openly shared, enabling scientists and governments in the region and beyond to analyse and model dust storms in the hope of easing them or making earlier warnings.
“Certainly the Middle East and North Africa, in particular, are big dust source regions, and somewhat poorly sampled in terms of the composition, what types of minerals are there,” said Dr Green.
“So we will producing detailed mineral maps of the surface dust composition in the Middle East and this could be used locally to make some assumptions about what type of dust is in the storms and how that might interact with people.”
While lots of the particles in the atmosphere can be traced back to deserts, human activity also generates dust.
The UN has called for global action against man-made dust emissions, known as anthropogenic dust.
Unlike the dust generated by the Empty Quarter or Sahara desert, anthropogenic dust can be caused by too much building work, not enough vegetation, land degradation and cutting water sources with dams.
There are three times the amount of natural sources of dust as anthropogenic dust, but it is on the increase.
Although dust storms are likely to be a fact of life for the region, researchers say they are excited to get their hands on the data and that being prepared is the best defence.
Lead scientist at the Barcelona Dust Centre, Sara Basart, said the data from the project will transform her area of study.
“We cannot stop sand and desert storms,” Dr Basart said.
“In the Middle East, you have your big desert in the middle of Saudi Arabia, and this is a natural desert. You cannot plant more trees or do anything to really prevent the dust emissions.”
Although there are areas where governments can intervene to stop desertification and dust emissions, being able to model them accurately is just as important.
“The only tool that we have for mitigating the risk is prevention. And forecasts are tools that are really going in that direction.
“If you know in advance that there will be this huge sand and dust storm, you can do things before the dust storm arrives.”