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    Middle East
     Apr 11, '14

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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

ran from 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 public health.

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%.

Lake Urmia

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.

Continued 1 2

New green movement needed in Iran (Oct 31, '13)

Going to extremes to ignore climate change (Oct 8, '13)



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