Addressing Sand and Dust Storms in SDG Implementation
Photo by IISD | Lynn Wagner
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Sand and dust storms are detrimental for human health, ecosystems and diverse socio-economic sectors.

A significant part of the dust emission is the consequence of human-induced factors, such as poor agricultural practices or land and water mismanagement.

It is very important to enhance national, regional and international cooperation and partnerships to observe, predict, mitigate and cope with the adverse effects of sand and dust storms, and seek support from UN agencies to meet the relevant SDGs.

Sand and dust storms pose a major challenge to sustainable development in arid and semi-arid regions of the planet. They occur when strong or very turbulent winds blow over dry, unvegetated soils and lift loose particles from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere. The concentration of airborne particles increases rapidly, and the visibility drops to a few meters. Their main scenes are the belt of tropical and subtropical deserts of the Northern hemisphere, stretching from the Sahara through the Middle East to the Great Indian Desert, as well as the mid-latitude deserts of Central Asia and China-Mongolia. These regions need to be in the forefront of efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 (life on land) by combating desertification, and halting and reversing land degradation.

About 2,000 megatons of particles are emitted annually to the atmosphere, where the finer fraction may be transported downwind over long distances, even across continents. The energetic implementation of SDG 3 on ensuring healthy lives is essential for reducing the harm that these particles cause to human health. Sand and dust storms are also detrimental for ecosystems and diverse socio-economic sectors, although dust, especially once deposited back to the Earth’s surface, also has positive environmental impacts, since it provides nutrients to terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems, boosting primary productivity.

The scientific community is aware that a significant part of the dust emission is the consequence of human-induced factors, such as poor agricultural practices or land and water mismanagement. This relationship demonstrates the clear links among the SDGs on sustainable agriculture, clean water, climate change and human health. Reducing the harmful impacts of sand and dust storms will require making progress on each of these Goals.

It should be noted that there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the share of dust emissions attributable to human factors in the overall total. There are also contradictory conclusions about the long-term trend of dust emissions, especially in relation to land use and climate change. Conversely, since there is a close relationship between airborne dust and climate, it is necessary to clarify how changes in dust emissions may impact the atmosphere, climate and oceans in the future.

Over the last decades, the social interest in and the eagerness of the research community to enhance the understanding of the physical processes associated with the dust cycle, to predict future events and to prevent their undesired impacts has increased rapidly. Recognizing the importance for multiple societal sectors around the world to better understand and monitor atmospheric sand and dust, in 2007, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) endorsed the launching of the Sand and Dust Storm Warning Advisory and Assessment System (SDS-WAS). Its mission is to enhance the ability of countries to deliver timely and quality sand and dust storm forecasts, observations, information and knowledge to users through an international partnership of research and operational communities. This partnership for sustainable development gathers together leading scientific and operational organizations from around the world.

An international network of research, national operational centers and users, the SDS-WAS is organized through regional nodes assisted by regional centers. It is coordinated by the Steering Committee supported by the WMO Secretariat. The main objective of the SDS-WAS regional centers is to facilitate user access, particularly for national meteorological and hydrological services, to observational, assessment and forecast products. Operational meteorologists typically use products generated from measurements performed by instruments on board geostationary satellites for dust monitoring and nowcasting. These products have the advantages of large spatial coverage (regional to global) and regular observations, which can be made available to weather centers in near-real time. However, the application of satellite products to monitor dust events faces several problems and must be complemented with in situ measurements. In this sense, air quality monitoring stations and ordinary meteorological stations play a fundamental role. Unfortunately, whereas the protocol for the international exchange of meteorological data has been in force for more than 50 years, there is still no protocol for the international exchange of air quality data.

Moving forward, the scientific and operational community that focuses on sand and dust storms can further support implementation of the SDGs by continuing to advance the quality of its forecasts and assessments. More research is needed into the physical processes involved in the dust cycle, particularly in the dust emission and effects of climate change on sand and dust storms intensity and vice versa. Another challenge is gaining a better understanding of how surface wind stress and soil conditions, both of which vary widely, interact to generate storms. A faster shift to multi-model forecasting, which involves combining the results from different models, will also lead to better forecasts. These forecasts need to be delivered to vulnerable communities as quickly as possible and in a language that will enable people to fully understand the risks and determine the actions they can take to protect themselves. The challenge of sand and dust storms is one where science has a clear and essential role in supporting policies for sustainable development. It is very important to enhance national, regional and international cooperation and partnerships to observe, predict, mitigate and cope with the adverse effects of sand and dust storms, and seek support from UN agencies to meet the relevant SDGs.

WMO SDS-WAS Webpage: http://www.wmo.int/sdswas

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