Complex Made Simple

Masdar leads the region’s dust research to create smarter climate models

Research shows how dust in the UAE’s atmosphere impacts climate, health, energy and agriculture

Researchers at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology have undertaken the UAE’s first comprehensive dust climatology study in order to better understand where the UAE’s dust is coming from and how it affects the country’s atmosphere – information that is pivotal to the development of smarter climate models needed to support the country’s sustainable development.

“In-depth research of the country’s dust is critically important to the development of advanced climate models, which will help the country detect and mitigate the effects of dust storms on health, transportation, renewable energy and agriculture,” said Dr. Behjat AlYousuf, Interim Provost, Masdar Institute.

“Masdar Institute will continue to play a leading role in fostering innovative climate-related research, reflecting our mandate to support the country’s long-term sustainable development goals,” he added.

Post-doctoral researchers Dr. Shaik Ghouse Basha and Dr. Phani Kumar Devulapalli, from Masdar Institute’s Water and Environmental Science Program, along with Dr. Taha B.M.J. Ouarda, Professor of Water and Environmental Engineering and Head of the Institute Center for Water and Environment (iWater), are leading the dust climatology study to find critical answers to the UAE’s dust storms, including where they come from and how they affect the atmosphere.

The UAE sits on the global “dust belt,” which wraps around North Africa, the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and China, and accounts for nearly 80% of the world’s dust. Yet, in a region so strongly affected by high levels of dust, dust is often not included in local climate modelling parameters. This Masdar Institute research undertaking is looking to change that by providing dust data for more advanced climate models, which in turn can better predict dust storms and their impact on climate, health, energy and agriculture.

The research so far tracks the origins of the UAE’s dust to two deserts – the Sahara and Rub’ al Khali, the world’s largest sand desert encompassing most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula.

“We used a combination of data collected from ground-based weather stations over the past 33 years and climate model datasets to determine various dynamics associated with dust storms and the storms’ effect on surface parameters, like precipitation, temperature, aerosol and optical properties. From surface observations, we learned when these dust storm hit and, using modeling data sets, we were able to pinpoint where the dust came from,” said Dr. Basha.

They found that on average, dust storms reduce the UAE’s surface temperatures by 4.5 degrees Celsius. The dust storms begin in December, occur with the most frequency between February and March, and start decreasing until August. The average dust storm lasts 21 hours and occurs more frequently over Abu Dhabi.

“Another interesting feature is that dust events (when visibility is from 1-5 km) over the UAE region show a significant decreasing trend whereas dust storms (when visibility is only up to 1 km) show moderate increases over this region,” said Dr. Basha.

During a dust storm, there are huge increases in aerosols – tiny particles of soot and organic matter emitted by power plants, factories and volcanoes, as well as mineral dust wafted off from the Sahara and other large deserts. Dr. Basha and Dr. Devulapalli are working to determine which type of aerosols are present during the storms and their chemical compositions.

While the direct economic impact of dust storms may seem minimal compared to other major weather events, long-term consequences of dust storms may take a heavy health, agricultural and energy toll on the people who live in dust-affected areas.

During dust storms, the poor air quality causes breathing difficulties, creating spikes in respiratory diseases and hospital visits. Dust storms reduce visibility for road and air traffic, and kick up the UAE’s fragile topsoil, severely limiting soil productivity and damaging crops. The dust can also impact the solar energy sector. Dust accumulates on solar photovoltaic panels, making them less effective, while suspended dust in the air also reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground for solar energy capture technologies.

Going forward, the researchers will investigate how dust from different regions contribute to the UAE’s dust as well as the types of weather conditions that could trigger more severe dust storms.