Windblown dust may muck up regional climate predictions

Computer simulations don’t accurately portray the airborne particles

HAZY OUTLOOK  Climate simulations’ inability to model windblown particles, like those seen in this dust storm, may render scientists’ climate forecasts inaccurate.

Michael Brashier/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Dust that capriciously wafts into the atmosphere may cloud climate forecasts.

Using 23 leading computer simulations of global climate, Amato Evan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., and colleagues tried to re-create African dust records collected by satellites between 1982 and 2013. Looking at year-to-year variations in how much dust originated in Africa and the distance it traveled, the researchers found that the simulations were orders of magnitude wrong, consistently underestimating dust production and movement. The finding suggests that the simulations, included in the latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, may not be accurate for climate forecasting in certain regions. The results appear July 4 in Geophysical Research Letters.

Dust has a complex relationship with climate. In the air, dust reflects solar radiation, warming the atmosphere but cooling the planet. Airborne particles also carry nutrients that, when dumped in new locations, can alter ecosystems. Likewise, changes in climate, such as variations in drought and storm patterns, influence how much dust gets whipped into the atmosphere.

Due to the complexity, the authors say that they don’t know how dust will alter future climate. They hope the study stirs more research into dust modeling. 

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