Dusting Australia

In 2009, a dust storm hit Sidney, Australia, pummelling the city in dust that reduced visibility to 100 meters (328 feet). Pollutant levels were 20 times higher than the lowest levels considered to be hazardous. The storm, which deposited 75,000 tons of dust per hour at its peak, removed 5 million tons of topsoil from the interior farmlands and dumped it into the Pacific Ocean [source: Shears].

The Impact of Dust Storms

During major dust storms, the deposition of dust over populated areas can be wide reaching, often affecting multiple cities and towns. Dust storms can take down trees, bury equipment and cause damage to houses. In the final years of the Dust Bowl, farm animals were found dead in the fields and people started suffering from "dust pneumonia" [source: WGBH].

While the loss of human life during dust storms is relatively small when compared to other natural disasters, long-term health concerns have cropped up recently. This is primarily due to the increased number of storms originating from areas of desertification. The dust in these storms has been shown to contain pollutants and toxins, such as salt, sulfur, heavy metals, pesticides and carbon monoxide to name a few [sources: United Nations, Stewart]. The pollution-laden dust can be carried over hundreds of miles, affecting millions of people who might not necessarily suffer from the acute events of the storm.

The immediate economic impact of dust storms is significant, but it doesn't rival major natural disasters that destroy entire cities. For instance, the damage due to dust storms in China averages at about $6.5 billion per year [source: Ford]. A single major earthquake can do damage to the tune of five times that figure. However, experts argue that the real economic impact of dust storms, particularly those that originate in areas of desertification, is difficult to pin down because of the long-term consequences they have on the livelihood of people who live in the area[source: United Nations]. When dust storms kick up in agricultural dry lands that are degraded, they remove the topsoil, which causes further desertification. As a result, farmers are forced to watch the topsoil, and their livelihood, literally blow away. This cycle, if gone unchecked, threatens to displace whole communities in some regions.

Some dust storm activity can be prevented, but dust storms will always be an integral part of the natural ecosystem. Learn what we can do to prevent and live with dust storms in the next section.