Jordan's Wadi Rum hosts international study about effect of dust on climate

Setting of 'Lawrence of Arabia' could help researchers better understand solar radiation and formation of clouds

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In the canyons of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan, puffs of dust greet tourists who come to hike and camp among the coloured desert sands and weathered rock.

Plastic bags and bottles are dotted across the reddish landscape, littering the place made famous by David Lean’s 1962 signature work Lawrence of Arabia.

But for German scientist Martina Klose, the more the dust, the better.

She and fellow European and American scientists have set up highly sensitive equipment over the past two weeks at the northern edge of Wadi Rum to collect dust from the area.

It is part of a cross-continental study on dust and its effects on weather and climate.

Dr Klose tells The National that the results could ultimately help scientists understand whether dust contributes to climate change or counters it.

“We want to find out exactly what the climate impacts are,” she says. "We are not sure at this point whether dust warms or cools our climate."

The focus, she says, is on very large dust particles and their mineral composition. Until a few years ago it was believed that only minute dust particles could travel long distances, for example, from the Middle East to Europe.

“It was found that particles 10 and 20 times as large can travel long distances,” Dr Klose says. “How this is happening is not clear because large particles are also very heavy and fall out very quickly.”

Her team conducted similar research in a volcanic area of Iceland and in the Moroccan desert.

Dust samples have been also collected from the US for the same project, called 'Dust-induced ice nucleation: effects of mineralogical composition and size'.

It is a collaboration between the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, where Dr Klose works.

The project, which will conclude at Wadi Rum, also aims to find out how the mineral composition of the dust particles affects their absorption of solar radiation, and how the composition affects the formation of clouds.

Lawrence of Arabia is about the man who played a pivotal role in shaping the modern Middle East, during the First World War and its aftermath.

The canyons he travelled by camel are now crossed by speeding pick-up trucks carrying visitors and leaving clouds of dust in their wake. Fires from tourist camps contribute to the haze that sits over the site.

But Dr Klose and her team are hoping for strong gusts of wind to whip up large clouds of dust during the team's six-week stay at Wadi Rum. The more comprehensive the samples, the more understanding they could gain about the size variation and composition of desert dust.

She says Wadi Rum was chosen as one of the locations for the project because of the wind erosion to the basalt and sandstone rock in the area, which helps emit mineral dust that reaches as far as Europe, especially in the spring.

“It is critical for us to go to a location where we are pretty sure that dust emissions happen and see the natural process," she says.

“Analysis of the results of these campaigns takes several years."

Dr Klose says data gathered from the ground in Wadi Rum and elsewhere will help refine weather forecasting models. It will also complement mineral dust imaging by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration from the International Space Station.

Updated: October 12, 2022, 4:51 PM