The Surprising Role of Dust in Earth's Ecology

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas (1935) Photo: NOAA George E. Marsh Album

Dust may be an annoying facts of life to you and me, but it is endlessly fascinating to scientists. Indeed, dust actually play a big role in the planet's ecology:

Dust can have a variety of impacts including fertilizing the ocean with iron, added Natalie Mahowald of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

"These particles can be carried for thousands of miles in the atmosphere, and during that time can interact with chemistry, clouds and radiation to modify climate," she said in prepared remarks.

Dust can be both good and bad, concluded Muhs, threatening health yet fertilizing land and ocean. It also affects the Earth's radiation, which is currently undergoing a warming due to human-induced gases being added to the atmosphere.

Over dark surfaces that absorb heat from the sun dust can have a cooling effect by reflecting light, but it can also warm other areas.


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