A persistent drought for over 3 years in the midwestern US has seen Oklahoma displaying worrisome signs that the panhandle region may be returning to a “dust bowl” scenario that will rival that of the infamous 1930’s disaster. Some media reports suggest this may become the worst dust bowl in living memory. Huge dust storms have been reported in recent weeks, and these degrade and displace agricultural soils, cause huge disruption to society and may even pose a direct respiratory health risk.
I have a long-standing research interest in drylands and in particular how biological soil crusts help stabilise surfaces and protect against dust mobilisation – I urge readers to take a look at two important papers by myself and Jayne Belnap of the USGS:
Disturbance to desert soil ecosystems contributes to dust-mediated impacts at regional scales, Biodiversity and Conservation 2014 http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10531-014-0690-x/fulltext.html
Microbial colonisation and controls in dry land systems, Nature Reviews Microbiology 2012 http://www.nature.com/nrmicro/journal/v10/n8/full/nrmicro2831.html
HERE IS THE BIGGER WORRY – Not once in media reports of the last week or so has anyone made the connection between these soil crusts and the increase in dust storms, yet the two are unequivocally linked. This must be factored into management plans and agricultural land use models – not least because the severity and frequency of dust storms is likely to increase as drought becomes a more chronic symptom of climate change. My colleague Jayne Belnap at the USGS has a great awareness programme in Utah aimed at preserving and managing these crusts – and here I am spreading the word globally – “Don’t Bust The Crust”