Saturday, March 10, 2012
Monday, March 5, 2012
Published Friday March 2nd in the UB Post
Cheap and easiest way to get to America? Grab an umbrella and wait for a Mongolian dust storm.
In the spring 2001, a particularly cantankerous dust storm hitchhiked its way from the dunes of of Sainshand, drifted across the Pacific, plummeted down the icy British Columbia coast, scaled the Colorado Plateau and finally landed in Arizona, where many believed the sun had set precipitately.
The dust storm had traveled over 11,000 km, originating from a severe drought in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and northwestern China.
Severe dust storms are nothing new to the world. From the Sahara to the Middle East, dust storms have routinely upset the daily commerce and goings of humanity, killings hundreds and confusing thousands.
The United Nations newsletter reported in June 2009 that 52 people were killed and 320,000 animals lost their lives in a particularly severe two day dust storm in Mongolia in the spring of 2008. Just last year, Australia suffered from the worst dust storm the country has seen in 70 years. This year, a dust storm in Riyadh, the largest city in Saudi Arabia, completely blackened the sky during the afternoon.
With the growing power of Asian dust storms over the last century, researchers have been pointing climate change as the root cause. Powerful and enduring, dust storms from Mongolia frequently travel as far away as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.
Climate change worldwide is making Mongolia hotter and more arid. Since the 1940s, the mean temperature in Mongolia has increased 3.4° Fahrenheit, this when compared to the global mean of 1° represents a dramatic increase in the given the time frame. Further, with strange rain patterns over the last few decades, soil erosion has become rampant on fragile pasture lands.
The combination of the increase in temperature and erosion of the soil are large factors in the potency of spring dust storms. Another player is the reduction of rivers in Mongolia due to glacial drop offs, which is speeding the process of desertification.
Called ‘yellow dust’ by the locals, the dust blowing from Mongolia and Northwestern China creates environmental and health problems for the inhabitants across Asia. Studying the contents of the dust, toxicologists have discovered that yellow dust has 16 times the metallic substances of normal dust.
Yellow dust can cause problems with human skin by activating the cellular detoxification system, essentially changing the arrangement of proteins present in ordinary cellular demarcation. In effect, yellow dust can modify the way human cells divide. It can also negatively affect human respiratory systems and produce bothersome lacrimations.
To combat desertification, the Ministry of Nature and Environment of Mongolia has partnered with other countries to set up a monitoring system for dust storms, arrange plans of action in case of a severe storm and developing forecasting methods. Other ways to combat desertification, as established by the UN, ask countries to prevent the over-cultivation of the soil, limit overgrazing and impart legislative action to prevent desertification.
Generally, Ulaanbaatar experiences 15-30 days of extreme winds, a time ripe for dust storms. Experts advice locals to carry masks designed to filter out small particles. They also suggest carrying water, as the high temperatures associated with dust storms can quickly dehydrate.
If a dust storm is visible on the horizon, getting away from the storm as quickly as possible is a good option. However, with winds traveling upwards of 75 mph, getting away can be tricky. If in a vehicle, it’s a safe bet to pull to the side of the road and let the storm pass through.
Most important, if the dust storm has already landed, it’s safer to stay put and take cover rather than move around, due to issues in visibility and the potential for flying objects.
Dust storms will be here soon, but a little prevention can go a long way. Through the efforts of the Mongolian government and environmental scientists, dust storm research and prevention might finally get the waft it needs to take effect. Until then, grab a mask or an umbrella.