News / Science & Technology

Dust From Farming May Affect Rainfall

Dust storm in the Sahara (Parc National du Banc d'Arguin)
Dust storm in the Sahara (Parc National du Banc d'Arguin)

Multimedia

Audio
TEXT SIZE - +

New research suggests agriculture has greatly increased the amount of dust blowing off of West Africa, the world's largest source of atmospheric dust, and may have been one factor driving the decrease in rainfall in the region over the past several centuries.

Dust is more than a housekeeping nuisance. To climate scientists, dust is a force of nature. It's the most abundant particle in the atmosphere, and it reflects sunlight and heat.

Africa's Sahel region
Africa's Sahel region

The world's largest source of dust is the Sahara and Sahel region of West Africa. And its influence on the environment is surprisingly wide-ranging, according to Stefan Mulitza, a marine geologist at the University of Bremen in Germany.

"It probably interacts with cloud formation; people think that it has an influence on the quantity of precipitation; hurricane activity through the cooling of the sea surface is probably affected; and last but not least, the quality of the air we breathe" is also affected by dust, Mulitza says. Dust from severe West African dust storms can blow all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to the U.S. state of Florida.

3,000 years of dust

But it's been hard for scientists to unravel what impact human activity has had on dust production in West Africa, in part because good data from satellites and ground stations has only been available for the last few decades.

Saharan dust blowing off Northwest Africa to the Atlantic Ocean
Saharan dust blowing off Northwest Africa to the Atlantic Ocean

In a new study in the journal Nature, Mulitza and his colleagues studied ocean sediments off the coast of Senegal and Mauritania. They constructed a record of West African dust production stretching back more than three thousand years.

For nearly that entire period, dust generation followed a predictable pattern: more dust in drier years, less in wetter ones. But then, beginning in the 19th century, something surprising happened: dust production increased dramatically.

Mulitza says that increase in dust coincides with a major economic change in the Sahel region.

"In the 19th century groundnuts were introduced into Senegal, just as one example," he says. "And there was a very widespread commercial agriculture to fuel the groundnut oil industry."

Unintended consequences

Farmers in the Sahel cleared forests to produce groundnuts and other cash crops. He says that disrupted the sandy soil and led to a sharp rise in the amount of dust blowing off the Sahel.

Mauritanian landscape. The photo was taken on a field trip to Mauritania led by Jan-Berend Stuut in November 2009.
Mauritanian landscape. The photo was taken on a field trip to Mauritania led by Jan-Berend Stuut in November 2009.

And that dust may have been one factor behind the drier climate in the region over the past few centuries. Although the effects of dust on climate are complex and not fully understood, it may cool surface temperatures, which can shift precipitation patterns away from the region.

Atmospheric scientist Charlie Zender at the University of California at Irvine says this is the first study to link farming with increased dust generation in the world's largest source of dust. And he says there may be lessons for farmers elsewhere in the world.

"In those regions where rainfall isn't plentiful and abundant, this study suggests that using those surfaces for agriculture, using that land, will lead to these types of unintended consequences, whether that's in Africa or not," he says.

Cooling dust

Cornell University climate researcher Natalie Mahowald says if future studies confirm Mulitza's findings, it could have larger implications for climate change research.

"It would mean that there has been a cooling from dust over the 20th century that we haven't really been thinking about previously," she says. "And this cooling could be hiding some of the increase or the warming that should be happening from carbon dioxide."

Mahowald says that could mean the Earth is more sensitive to the warming effects of carbon dioxide than previously thought.

Mulitza says his findings may not be all bad news. He notes that increased dust over the tropical Atlantic may have lowered ocean surface temperatures, which may have reduced hurricane activity. "The climate system is coupled," he says. "And if you change something in the tropics, and you change something in the African dust source, it has global consequences" – although, he says, more research will be needed to quantify exactly what those consequences are.

You May Like

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid