Page 1 of 2 Dust storms cloud Iranís future
By David Michel
Iran is, literally, being blown away. Stifling dust storms frequently
now envelop both big cities and rural towns across much of Iran, the
worldís 17th largest country. They threaten to disrupt crucial parts
of public and economic life, education, commerce, public health,
agriculture, trade and transportation. Swirling clouds of windblown
silt, soil, and sediment - already affected 23 of Iranís 31 provinces
in 2013, according to Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, head of the
countryís Environmental Protection Organization.
Iranís massive dust storms could also spill well across Iranís
borders, generating serious regional consequences and tensions. Dust
clouds veiled Tehran for 117 days of the Iranian year, which
March 2012 to March 2013. And blinding sand storms blocked roads
across the eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan last summer,
isolating nearly 60 towns and villages.
Dust storms regularly arise in arid and semi-arid regions around the
world. Indeed, the Islamic Republic sits in the center of a Northern
Hemisphere ďdust beltĒ stretching from the west coast of North Africa,
through the Middle East, and across South and Central Asia to China.
Winds gusting over the open, level landscape of Iranís dry plateaus,
deserts, and salt flats readily pick up loose soil and sand, lifting
bits of dirt and grit into the atmosphere and carrying it tens,
hundreds, or even thousands of miles away.
Dust and smog obscure the view of Tehran's skyline
Nationwide, erosion annually strips thousands of tons of surface soil
and sediment from every square mile of the country. The resulting dust
storms can close roadways, rail lines, and airports; choke crops; clog
machinery; and cloak cities in debilitating air pollution, endangering
Yet nature is not the only culprit stirring up the dust clouds that
blot the countryís horizons. Iranís own water and land-management
practices have worsened environmental conditions that exacerbate dust
storms. So too, Iranís neighbors have made equally detrimental policy
choices, with damaging regional repercussions. And lurking behind
these national and international pressures, global climate change may
further increase drought and desertification across Iran and Southwest
Asia, potentially intensifying future dust and sand storms.
Darkness at noon
With 90% of its territory classified as arid or semi-arid, Iranís
climate and topography render it naturally susceptible to dust storms.
According to Iranís National Action Program to Combat Desertification
and Mitigate the Effect of Drought, over 77,000 square miles of the
country across 19 provinces are subject to significant wind erosion.
The Islamic Republic typically suffers more than 500 dust storms
annually, mainly in the spring and summer months as temperatures mount
and rainfall wanes. In recent decades, the southwestern provinces have
experienced anywhere from 60 to 130 distinct dust ďeventsĒ every year.
A sign by the dry Zayandeh River in Isfahan reads "Danger, swimming prohibited".
In eastern Sistan region, the town of Zabol can experience up to 80
dust storms in a year. The dry gusts, known to the locals as the
ď120-day windĒ because they last throughout the summer, produce gales
up to 75 mph. Storms in the Sistan Basin can grow so intense they have
been measured to contain more than 600 pounds of dust per cubic meter
of air. (For a roughly equivalent measure of density on a more
familiar scale, imagine six pounds of dust whirling around the space
inside a standard menís shoebox.)
These thick dust storms can wreak serious damage. Billowing dust can
reduce visibility to 100 yards or less, shutting down air and road
traffic. Shops and schools close. Searing, sand-bearing winds blow
down power lines. Grit-filled machines grind to a halt. Drifting dust
buries crops and farmland, suffocates livestock, and fills wells and
irrigation canals. One analysis of the area around Zabol estimated
that the lost economic activity and physical damage from dust storms
cost the city US$100 million between 2000 and 2005.
Far more troublingly, Iranís dust storms also impose serious
public-health risks. If inhaled, fine dust particles can penetrate
deep into the lungs. They can cause infections, respiratory
difficulties, and cardiovascular problems. The World Health
Organization (WHO) has formulated specific guidelines about exposure
to concentrations of airborne dust, soot, or other tiny pollutants,
called ďparticulate matterĒ, that can threaten human health.
Studies of several Iranian cities have found particulate pollution
routinely shooting far above these guidelines during dust storms. In
the southwestern city of Ahvaz, dust storms during the summer of 2010
increased daily pollution levels to between 13 and 16 times the WHO
standards, causing an estimated 1,131 deaths and more than 8,100
hospital visits. An analysis of hospitals in Kermanshah province in
western Iran calculated that every 10% rise in dust concentrations
swelled the number of cardiac patients by 10%, respiratory patients by
5%, and deaths from heart disease by 3%.
Spreading dust bowls
Iranís dust storms appear to be growing more frequent and severe.
Compared to the past 30 years, the number of dust storms striking the
Islamic Republic jumped markedly between 2000 and 2009, soaring by as
much as 70% to 175% in the western provinces. Dust storms also
increasingly occur in areas not as vulnerable as in the past. They
have more than doubled in parts of the northeast around Sabzevar
and in the northwestern provinces, especially East Azerbaijan, West
Azerbaijan, and Kurdistan.
These increases parallel regional climate changes. Over the past half
century, much of Iran has become increasingly arid. Average
temperatures have warmed up to nine degrees since 1960, while annual
rainfall has dropped across much of the country, according to Iranís
Second National Communication to the United Nations Framework
Convention on Climate Change.
Further global warming could exacerbate these trends. Iranian studies
have projected that average temperatures could climb almost two
degrees by 2039, while precipitation across the country could drop by
9%. A hotter, more arid climate would further dry the soil, creating
more loose dust and sand to be swept away by the wind.