Significant increase in frequency and intensity of sandstorms in the Middle East over the past 15 years

Significant increase in frequency and intensity of sandstorms in the Middle East over the past 15 years

A significant increase in frequency and the intensity of sand and dust storms has been observed in the Middle East over the past 15 years. Although the Middle East has been the worst hit, with Iran and Kuwait the most affected, meteorologists say they are now also happening in new places like some parts of Central Asia.

According to Enric Terradellas, a meteorologist with the WMO's sand and dust storm prediction center for the Middle East, there has been a significant increase in the frequency and the intensity of sand and dust storms in the region in the past 15 years or so.

"One of the main sources of sand and dust storms is Iraq, where the flow of rivers has decreased because of a race in dam constructions in upstream countries. That has led to the disappearance of marshes and drying up of lakes both in Iraq and Iran, and the sediments left behind are very important source of dust in the region," Terradellas said

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has predicted that Iraq could witness 300 dust events in a year within 10 years, up from around 120 per year now.

On June 15, 2016, a large sandstorm was produced over the Red Sea. The transport was seen from the wide coastal area, but the plume was especially dense over the Tokar Delta, said Georgiy Stenchikov of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

Gaps in near-coastal mountain ranges become pathways through which winds can carry dust and sand from inland areas toward the sea. For example Tokar Gap - located about 50 km (30 miles) inland - funnels winds toward the southeast from June to September. These winds spread dust from the Tokar Delta out over the Red Sea and toward the Arabian Peninsula. 

Dust storm over the Red Sea on June 15, 2016. Image credit: Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response. Caption by Kathryn Hansen.

Saharan sand is also spreading to the west, across the Atlantic, and to the north, reaching all parts of Europe. One of such events is currently active over southern Europe. If you live there, you might have noticed African sand on your car following recent rains. It's coming from Tunisia and Libya.

Dust storms affect the climatic and other environmental processes of the planet, but they also have a major impact on human health, particularly the respiratory system. "A dust storm consists of a massive amount of particulates in the air, and when people breathe it, these can get down their lungs and cause respiratory illness and heart disease and so on," said Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, a health and climate change expert with the WHO.

Over the past few days, 14 Iranian provinces, including Teheran, were affected by dust storms, the Iranian health department said. "The air is so polluted here and I have developed breathing problem," Jasem, a businessman in Ahvaz in southwest Iran told the BBC, coughing over the phone. "Coughing is usual thing for me now and we need to keep the windows closed and use the air-conditioner all the time."

Sandstorm over the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Syria on June 16, 2016. Credit: NASA/NOAA/DoD Suomi NPP / VIIRS

In May 2016, Amin Baqeri, the governor of Rigan, Iran's southeastern province of Kerman, said 16 villages in Rigan were buried in sand and became completely deserted amid consistent sandstorms. "Massive sand influx and consistent sandstorms have led to the complete disappearance of the villages under piles of sand. Agriculture and livestock are totally ruined in this area, and it suffered a loss of nearly $9 million USD (320 billion rials). 80 other villages are also endangered and might become subjected to be deserted too," Baqeri warned.

In September 2015, a severe sandstorm engulfed much of the Middle East. It caused at least 12 casualties and sent nearly 1 000 to hospitals across the region. According to the Lebanese Health Ministry, hundreds of people were hospitalized with breathing problems and two women have died. The meteorological department at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport described the storm as being "unprecedented" in Lebanon's modern history. 

In Syria, the sandstorm disrupted the fighting and air strikes and caused dozens of suffocation cases, including 3 casualties. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, hospitals in the city of al-Mayadin, in the province of Deir Ezzor, stopped to receive relief cases because there were no oxygen cylinders.

Sandstorm affecting the Middle East on September 8, 2015. Image credit: NASA Terra/MODIS

"Sand-dust storms, especially serious-strong sand or dust storms are hazardous weather events with extreme calamity. When they occur, they can move forward like an overwhelming tide and the strong winds take along drifting sands that cover farmlands, damage young crop plants and result in a loss of production", explained Dr. Wadid Erian, Prof. of Soil Science at Cairo University and Senior Advisor on Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction at the League of Arab States. "Sandstorms accelerate the process of land desertification and cause serious environment pollution with huge destruction to ecology and the living environment," he added.

In Asia, the dust and sand from Mongolia and the Gobi desert reach China, the Korean peninsula, and Japan. However, with the Aral Sea drying up, the problem is also increasing in Kazakhstan and Mongolia, WMO's sand and dust storm expert Alexander Baklanov said.

Major sandstorm over eastern China on May 1, 2016. Image credit: NASA/NOAA/DoD Suomi NPP / VIIRS.

According to the WHO, dust storms contribute to poor air quality that is blamed for the death of 7 million people every year.

Featured image: Dust storm over the Red Sea on June 15, 2016. Credit: LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

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