In the eye of
the dust storm


Dust storms often sweep across Central Asia, causing problems for both human health and agriculture. Now scientists from the CALTER (‘Long-term ecological research programme for monitoring Aeolian soil erosion in central Asia’) project are shedding new light on this devastating phenomenon.

They have already set up a ground monitoring system, braving harsh desert environments to do so, and gathered extensive data on dust storms from archives going back several decades.

The project brings together nine partners from seven countries (Germany, Portugal, Israel, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). Their expertise covers a range of disciplines including climatology, geography, meteorology, soil science, botany, physics, mathematics and remote sensing.


Dust storms

Central Asia is naturally prone to dust storms, as the wind regularly whips up the sands of its vast Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts. The resulting high levels of dust in the atmosphere cause respiratory problems in people and animals, and affect crops by damaging the structure of the plants and stripping away the topsoil. Communications activities infrastructures can also be affected by dust storms.

Over the past four to five decades, human activities in Central Asia have caused the frequency of dust storms to increase significantly. In the 1950s, large areas of the Kazakhstan steppes were given over to agricultural production, creating a period of severe dust storms known as the ‘Soviet Dust Bowl’. Today, excessive grazing, transport and oil and gas exploitation activities are having a similar effect, placing the light, sandy soils of the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts at increased risk of erosion.

More recently, irrigation activities have caused the Aral Sea to shrink and the exposed seabed is now a major source of dust in the region. Worryingly, this dust is heavily contaminated with salts and herbicides, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.

Looking to the future, some climate change models predict that Central Asia will become even drier, causing vegetation to die back and water bodies to dry up, and exacerbating the problem further. The region’s attempts to deal with these storms are hampered by a lack of information about the factors influencing the storms. Unsolved mysteries include the location of the main dust-producing areas, how far the dust is transported, where it is deposited, what it is made of and to what extent human activities affect the frequency of dust storms.

Delving into the details of dust

The aim of the CALTER project is to answer these questions and develop recommendations to reduce the severity of dust storms, with a particular focus on Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Some 80 % of the area of these countries is classified as arid or semi-arid.

The first priority of the project is to set up a comprehensive monitoring system on emission sites, dust storm frequency and dust composition, which will provide the information needed to mitigate the effects of dust storms.

The project team is turning to a wide range of techniques and information sources to study the storms. One part of the project involves collecting and analysing data on dust storms from more than 300 Central Asian meteorological stations which have been operating since 1936.

Satellite images are also being used, both to monitor dust storms and study the changes taking place in the most active dust-emitting sites. The partners are also developing computer simulations of dust storms, and using wind tunnels to determine wind speed thresholds.

They are also testing materials which could be used to stabilise soils, and developing phytorehabilitation measures using local drought and salt-tolerant plant species, which could be used for the most hostile environments such as the dried bottom of the Aral Sea. Another important goal of the project is the establishment of longlasting links between European and Central Asian researchers, and boosting research cooperation among the Central Asian states.

Setting up a network in the desert

According to the project partners, CALTER’s main achievement to date is the establishment of a ground monitoring system on dust deposits in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This is no mean feat – simply reaching the sites in the middle of the desert is a challenge. The monitoring system is already helping the countries involved to identify the major sources of dust in the region. Armed with this information, the countries can plan more effective strategies to mitigate the problem.

The project has also succeeded in drawing the attention of local authorities in the region to the problem of wind erosion and air quality. The heads of Kazakhstan’s provincial meteorological services were so impressed by CALTER’s methodology that they have decided to extend the monitoring network to cover the whole country.

Extending the project’s reach

CALTER is focusing its efforts on just three countries: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. However, the project partners are keen to build on the work carried out within CALTER and expand the monitoring network to other Central Asian countries such as Mongolia and China, and possibly even Afghanistan and Iran.

They are also eager to explore the socioeconomic and natural causes of land-cover change in greater depth, and analyse in detail the way landscapes change over time.

Although CALTER focused its efforts on Central Asia, the knowledge generated by the project in terms of our understanding of the conditions which lead to the development of dust storms, as well as the methodologies created to monitor and observe these phenomena, could also be applied elsewhere.

The project’s reach therefore has the potential to extend far beyond the windswept Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts to the other regions of the world where bare, arid soils and high winds conspire to whip up sand storms on a regular basis.