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Global Sand and Dust Storm Early Warning System

November 20, 2007

The United Nation’s World Meteorological Organization, or WMO, is launching an early warning system that can help Arizona and other states minimize hazards from intercontinental sand and dust storms. A University of Arizona research professor is leading the international team drafting the U.N. plan which will begin operation early next year.

Storms generated in arid parts of the world can deposit thousands of tons of airborne sand and dust on cities and over continents. It exposes populations to airborne diseases, poses hazards for aviation and highway traffic, and damages crops, according to the WMO.

Fine particles in sand and dust storms carry mineral aerosols that aggravate chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in people and animals. Cardiovascular and respiratory problems associated with fine airborne particles have driven the Environmental Protection Agency to invoke stricter air quality standards in 2006.

“Storms from the Sahara Desert carry dust, pollutants and microorganisms across the Atlantic Ocean to Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico,” said William A. Sprigg, a research professor in UA’s Institute of Atmospheric Physics and head of the U.N. planning team.

“Similar clouds of dust and ‘hitchhiking’ pollutants are picked up in storms that begin in Asian deserts and travel across the Pacific Ocean to Arizona and the western United States. Bacteria, viruses and industrial pollutants travel with fine desert dust on air currents for days,” he said.

Sprigg has returned from a landmark meeting held at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center in Spain, where his team, along with 80 invited scientists and policy experts from more than 20 countries, reviewed early drafts of the plan. Weather, health, agriculture, transportation and environmental agencies worldwide are partners in the effort.

Nations across Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas want a global system to coordinate and deliver advanced forecasts produced by meteorological centers around the world. These forecasts will be able to predict up to five days in advance when and where plumes of sand and dust from deserts like the Sahara, Gobi and Takla Makan will move. The forecasts will give governments, businesses and communities information necessary to minimize impacts. Two regional centers are already operating in China and Spain. The United Nations plans to locate another center for the Americas soon, and wants to establish a fourth center for Australia.

The new program links all participating countries’ storm research, forecasting and warning tools, Sprigg said. Researchers will better understand the composition of the dust transported great distances over the globe and how better to control problems at the source.

Sprigg and Stanley Morain, head of the Earth Data Analysis Center at the University of New Mexico, are co-principal investigators on a 5-year NASA-funded project to make information from NASA satellite images of dust sources and airborne dust storms useful to public health agencies.

Of particular concern to UA scientists are dust storms that carry spores responsible for valley fever. Dr. John Galgiani, who directs the UA Valley Fever Center for Excellence in the UA College of Medicine, said that if the United Nations sand and dust early warning system can help identify when and where valley fever spores travel with desert dust, health officials can alert the public to take precautions that will reduce health risks.

“Patches of the spores that cause valley fever have been found across the southwestern United States, much of Mexico and Central and South America, which is one of the reasons the World Meteorological Organization decided to act,” Sprigg said.

Sprigg, who joined the UA in 1998, is currently U.S. director of the Sino-U.S. Centers for Soil and Water Conservation and Environmental Protection. He also helped organize the World Laboratory international school for dust storm forecasting, located on Malta, and is chairman of the Climate, Ozone and Greenhouse Effect Permanent Monitoring Panel of the World Federation of Scientists.

Sprigg can provide a list of local, state, national and international experts directly involved in or familiar with his UA-based group’s work on modeling and forecasting airborne dust.

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