Fear in a Handful of Dust

A huge dust cloud rolls over the Australian town of Griffith. (AP Photo/Denis Couch)

Whether you're a struggling sub-Saharan farmer or just a hippie dosed to the gills at Burning Man, the sight of an advancing wall of abrasive darkness is never a good thing. Also known as sandstorms, dust storms have served as harbingers of drought, famine and death for thousands of years.

Now you can throw epidemic disease into the mix as well. Slate's Christopher Hitchens brought this up yesterday in a post about Australia's dusty history. In particular, he points out that seasonal sandstorms spread West African meningitis and airborne foot-and-mouth disease in the U.K. This is all particularly interesting considering just how far a little dust can travel thanks to Earth's weather systems.

NASA researchers have linked seasonal dust storms from the Sahara Desert to the cooling of the north Atlantic Ocean's surface temperatures, possibly contributing to increased hurricane activity. Dust from North Africa even makes it over the Alps and as far north as Wales. Recently, according to the Washington Post, more dust storm activity in the western United States stoked concerns that increased off-road vehicle use, livestock grazing and road development might stir up enough additional dust to damage local ecosystems.

Similar concerns have risen regarding the shrinking Himalayan glaciers. According to the Guardian, some experts think that a coat of fine carbon particles has reduced their ability to reflect solar radiation -- the equivalent of going up to a man in a white pantsuit on a sunny day and draping a black poncho over him.

Dust storms have made a lot of headlines this year due to major storms in Afghanistan, Africa China, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. And hey, we haven't even touched on the problems of radioactive dust storms, volcanic ash lowering Earth's temperatures and the resulting fires of even a small nuclear exchange sealing half the world under soot-black skies.

Thanks to the always historically accurate Katie Lambert for bringing Hitchens' post to my attention!

Keep watching the skies at HowStuffWorks.com: How Desert Survival Works How Sand Dunes Work How Weather Works 10 Worst Epidemics What caused the dust bowl?

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.