News Stories

Dust to Dust

Did you clean up for holiday guests? Some of that dust may have traveled a LONG distance to get to your house. And the amount of dust in your house or apartment is a good predictor of climate change.

Using data from several research satellites, scientists will spend the next 3 years trying to understand the climate impacts of about 770 million tons of dust which are carried into the atmosphere every year from the Sahara desert. Some Saharan dust falls back to Earth before it leaves Africa. Some of it streams out over the Atlantic Ocean or Mediterranean Sea, carried on the wind as far away as South America and the Southeastern United States. All of it has an as-yet unmeasured impact on Earth's climate by reflecting sunlight back into space.

And some of it may end up at your house, in which case you may need a special kind of vacuum cleaner. A new one is coming out that adds ultraviolet light to the brushing and suction of a vacuum cleaner in order to remove potentially infectious microorganisms from a carpet's surface. It should cost no more than a conventional vacuum does today.

Meanwhile, clues to future climate may be found in that dust. It all has to do with the way that an ordinary drinking glass shatters: Microscopic particles of dust, emitted into the atmosphere when dirt breaks apart, follow similar fragment patterns as broken glass and other brittle objects. This suggests there are several times more dust particles in the atmosphere than previously believed, since shattered dirt appears to produce an unexpectedly high number of large dust fragments. The finding has implications for understanding future climate change because dust plays a significant role in controlling the amount of solar energy in the atmosphere. Depending on their size and other characteristics, some dust particles reflect solar energy and cool the planet, while others trap energy as heat.

Researcher Jasper Kok says, "As small as they are, conglomerates of dust particles in soils behave the same way on impact as a glass dropped on a kitchen floor. Knowing this pattern can help us put together a clearer picture of what our future climate will look like." His study may also improve the accuracy of weather forecasting, especially in dust-prone regions. Dust particles affect clouds and precipitation, as well as temperatures.

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