More dust storms could be in store for the Arabian Peninsula, scientists warn.
Naturally occurring dust particles are among the major airborne pollutants in the region, affecting human health, solar panels and machinery.
As human populations grow and the impact of climate change becomes more pronounced, the danger is expected to increase.
Scientists in Saudi Arabia, Germany and Cyprus used satellite data to study aerosol optical depth – the ability of airborne particles to absorb or diffuse light – over the Arabian Peninsula from 2000 to 2015. It indicated the amount of dust particles and other pollutants in the air.
“During the past decade, from satellite observations, we know the amount of particles has increased dramatically,” said Klaus Klingmuller, a co-author of the study and a post-doctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz.
“We were able to relate this increase to the increasingly dry conditions in the northern part of the Middle East – in areas of Iraq and Syria,” he said.
The increase in dust particles occurred between 2001 and 2012, after which conditions eased, said Dr Klingmuller.
The scientists believed that as temperatures increased as a result of climate change, general drying would probably lead to more dust storms.
The research was published days after a paper which examined the link between climate change and rising temperatures. It warned that hotter summers might be in store for the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries.
However, there is evidence to suggest a strong link between rising levels of greenhouse gases and temperature increases, but the correlation between climate change and the rise in dust storms is not so clear, according to Dr Klingmuller.
“It is a bit difficult to give precise numbers,” he said, when asked to project the number of dust storms in the future.
It is difficult to quantify how climate change will increase the occurrence of dust storms because there are other factors at play.
In Iraq and Syria, political turmoil had played a part in drying out agricultural lands, increasing the potential for the creation of dust, said Prof Georgiy Stenchikov, chairman of the Earth sciences and engineering programme at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.
Unrest in both countries had also slowed down industrial activity, which had reduced the amount of man-made pollutants released into the atmosphere, he said.
Prof Stenchikov believed that man-made pollution – from car engines, petrochemical
factories and other industrial facilities – and how they interacted with airborne dust was a key factor that had been overlooked.
The region’s high temperatures could cause dust particles to react with man-made pollutants in ways that had not been observed in other places, he said.
That meant that observations made in cities in areas lying between 35 and 55 degrees north or south of the equator could differ from those in cities in the Gulf, he said.
“Dust provides surfaces for heterogeneous reactions, it can get compounds, dangerous compounds that we could not see in other places,” said the professor.
“To protect buildings and to protect people, we have to know site distribution and chemical composition.
“We know that dust in some places affects machinery and in other places it doesn’t, and this depends on the chemical composition of this dust and we do not have good databases that tell us about this.”
“Dust is not always harmful, as deposition of dust into the sea provides nutrients for marine microorganisms.
“You cannot remove dust from the system, it plays its role. You have to understand it better.”
The findings were published in a paper titled Aersol Optical Depth Trend over the Middle East in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.