As the effects of climate change intensify in the Southwest, future visits to Arches and Canyonlands national parks could coincide with more dust storms than what currently is considered usual, according to a joint study by U.S. Geological Survey and University of California scientists.
The study says drier conditions in the region associated with climate change will "likely" lead to reduced vegetative cover that holds soils in place.
The researchers examined "climate, vegetation and soil measurements collected over a 20-year period in Arches and Canyonlands national parks," a USGS release said. "Long-term data indicated that perennial vegetation in grasslands and some shrublands declined with temperature increases. The study then used these soil and vegetation measurements in a model to project future wind erosion.
"The findings strongly suggest that sustained drought conditions across the Southwest will accelerate loss of grasses and some shrubs and increase the likelihood of dust production on disturbed soil surfaces in the future," the release notes.
At the same time, the scientists also noted that biological soil crusts known as cryptobiotic soils "prevented wind erosion from occurring at most sites despite reductions in perennial vegetation."
“Accelerated rates of dust emission from wind erosion have large implications for natural systems and human well-being, so developing a better understanding of how climate change may affect wind erosion in arid landscapes is an important and emerging area of research,” said Seth Munson, a USGS ecologist and the study’s lead author.
The USGS release noted that "(D)ust carried by the wind has received recent attention because of its far-reaching effects, including the loss of nutrients and water-holding capacity from source landscapes, declines in agricultural productivity and health and safety concerns. Dust is also a contributing factor in speeding up the melting of snow, which affects the timing and magnitude of runoff into streams and rivers.