A weather forecast for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on January 31, 2008, called for high winds and the possibility of dust storms. Two days later, the predictions came to pass—with a vengeance. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of Oman, UAE, Iran, Pakistan, the Gulf of Oman, and the Arabian Sea. This image shows thick dust plumes, bordered by thick banks of clouds, blowing over the ocean waters.
Vast sand seas cover much of the Arabian Peninsula, and smaller pockets of sand occupy Iran and Pakistan. This picture shows dust plumes blowing southward from Iran and Pakistan, fanning out over the Gulf of Oman. Farther south, a massive cloud of dust stretches over the Arabian Sea. Although some dust plumes appear to originate near the southeastern coast of Oman, much of the dust likely originates farther inland on the peninsula.
This sea of airborne sand is just one conspicuous example of the dust that constantly envelops our planet. That dust can include, according to science and natural history writer Hannah Holmes, “skin flakes, rock flecks, tree bark, bicycle paint, lampshade fibers, ant legs, sweater wool, brick shards, tire rubber, hamburger soot, and bacteria.” Certain parts of the world, however, excel at dust production. Besides the Middle East, most of the world’s dust storms arise in the Sahara Desert, Southwest Asia, and Mongolia.
Dust encircling the Earth can do more than cloud skies and color sunsets; it can carry both critical nutrients and dangerous pathogens vast distances. Dust from the Sahara desert, for instance, regularly fertilizes soils in the Amazon rainforest. Saharan dust also lands closer to home, in the Atlantic Ocean, where it provides nutrients to phytoplankton, tiny plant-like organisms that are the basis of the marine food web. These phytoplankton take up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, helping regulate climate.
Dust also has a sinister side. Saharan dust has played a role in coral mortality in the Caribbean. “Yellow Dust” carries sand from The Gobi and Taklimakan Deserts, along with industrial pollutants from China, eastward to Korea and Japan. Continuing its journey, the dust accounts for some of the smog in Los Angeles. Scientists have also begun to examine the role of dust in the spread of disease, including SARS and foot-and-mouth disease.