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Western U.S. States Seeing More And More Dust, Study Finds

BOULDER, Colo. (UPI) — The amount of dust being blown across large areas of the landscape of the western United States has increased in the last 17 years, researchers say.

Scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder say the increase, which may involve several factors including increased windstorm frequency, drought cycles and changing land-use patterns, has implications both for the areas where the dust is first picked up by the winds and for the places where the dust is put back down.

“Dust storms cause a large-scale reorganization of nutrients on the surface of the Earth,” doctoral student Janice Brahney said. “And we don’t routinely monitor dust in most places, which means we don’t have a good handle on how the material is moving, when it’s moving and where it’s going.”

The sites with the greatest increases in dust were clustered in the Northwest, the Midwest and the Intermountain West, with Colorado, Wyoming and Utah seeing especially large increases, the researchers said.

Much of the dust is the product of erosion, they said, which can impoverish the soil in the areas where dust is being lost.

Wind tends to pick up the finer particles in the soils, Brahney said, and those are the same particles that have the most nutrients and can hold onto the most soil moisture.

Dust has previously not been routinely measured over long periods of time, the researchers said, but Western residents can attest to the increases.

“What we know is that there are a lot of dust storms, and if you ask people on the Western Slope of Colorado, or in Utah or Arizona, you’ll often hear them say, ‘Yeah, I grew up in this area, and I don’t remember it ever being like this before,’” CU-Boulder geological sciences Professor Jason Neff said.

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