NASA is mapping dust storms from space with this new, high-tech instrument

(CNN) In the Mediterranean, it is called “SiroccoAnd in the Canary Islands.La Calima“while passing”harmtanin West Africa, andpillsin Sudan. But these various names all describe the same thing: dust storms.

Sand and dust storms are a global phenomenon. These fine dust particles can be carried by the wind Thousands of miles awayaffecting health and livelihoods.

According to the United NationsDust storms have increased dramatically in recent years due to climate change, land degradation, and drought.

climate scientist Natalie Mahwald She hopes that by learning more about dust storms, we can plan for the future. An engineering professor at Cornell University in the US, she’s spent the past two decades tracking dust around the world — and now she’s working with NASA on a new instrument called EMIT.

First-of-its-kind satellite imaging spectrometer helps map dust colors. Scientists can use the data in their climate models to see how the planet’s different minerals heat or cool, Mahwald explains. Each type of dust has its own unique light-reflecting signature: For example, white dust reflects solar radiation, or heat, while red dust and dark dust “absorb it,” she says.

EMIT (Investigating the Source of Earth’s Surface Mineral Dust) “will revolutionize what we can do,” Mawald says. “We can use that (data) to better understand the impact of desert dust.”

metal map

Launched in July 2022, EMIT is connected to the International Space Station and orbits Earth 16 times a day, mapping the mineral composition of the planet’s surface by collecting data at SpectraThey are the different wavelengths of light that are emitted by different colours.



Presentation of NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Investigation (EMIT) source survey, which measures visible and infrared light reflected from dust and soil.

This information allows researchers to determine the mineral and chemical composition of materials on the surface. Scanning 50-mile-wide strips in a matter of seconds, the tool will provide scientists with billions of data points to use in climate model predictions—dramatically expanding the current set of data that comes from just 5,000 sampling sitesMawald says.

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Most of the existing data comes from farmland, where detailed soil information was valuable for agricultural and commercial purposes. The wealth of information EMIT provides, which includes data from the world’s driest regions, will help scientists learn more about dust and its impact on climate—an issue that Mawald says has been largely ignored until now.

vicious circle

The United Nations estimates that 2,000 million tons of sand and dust are emitted into the atmosphere annually.

Sand and dust storms are vital to the Earth-bearing planet nutritious soil across countries and continents and helping plant life flourish – for example, dust from the Sahara Desert It feeds on trees in the Amazon rainforestWhere the soil lacks the necessary nutrients.

“Ecosystems actually depend on dust aerosols,” says Diana Francis, a climate scientist at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

But if dust storms become more frequent and intense, they could accelerate global warming: A report from the United Nations stands out How changing storm patterns can change the distribution of Earth’s minerals and reduce precipitation, while aerosols can act like greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by absorbing solar radiation.



This could create a feedback loop, as climate change causes more intense dust storms Land degradation and droughtDust storms exacerbate climate change. There’s evidence this is already happening, Francis says, pointing to “Godzilla,” the biggest worldwide dust storm 20 yearswhich crossed the Atlantic Ocean in June 2020, dark skies from the Caribbean Sea to the US state of Texas.

Dust storms can cause respiratory illnesses, damage livestock and crops, and disrupt transportation. In the Middle East and North Africa region, it is estimated to cost the economy $13 billion a year.

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Francis says the number and intensity of storms in the desert is on the rise. In some of her earlier research, she found that dust from the Sahara had reached the North Pole, due to changes in atmospheric circulation.

“We’ve noticed that over the past two decades, the darkening of Arctic ice has become significant,” says Francis, pointing to another feedback loop. “We know that when the ice is dark it will reflect less sunlight, so it will melt faster.”

More than just dust

EMIT has submitted 5,000 datasets to date – each containing more than 1.4 million spectra. Scientists at NASA use the data to help map dust and soil composition around the world.

But EMIT data is also used to map another factor affecting climate change: methane.

Although it makes up a fraction of greenhouse gas emissions, it is estimated to contain methane. 80 times A warming force greater than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it enters the atmosphere.



Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California will assemble components for the EMIT instrument in December 2021.

Methane absorbs infrared light in a unique pattern, providing “spectral fingerprintsaid Robert Green, senior investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and principal investigator for the EMIT mission.

To date, the EMIT system has monitored 50 inchessuper emittersWorldwide, most of it comes from fossil fuels, waste, and agricultural facilities, in locations including the United States, Iran, and Turkmenistan.

While carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for centuries, methane dissipates after a decade, which means that Reducing methane emissions is a fast way to slow climate change. NASA hopes this information will encourage countries to stop methane emissions.

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While the EMIT mission was initially slated to last only 12 months, Green says there are now plans to extend the project.

Mawald is excited about the future. “The EMIT project is testing the waters and really showing what’s possible,” she says. “We’re going to go from 5,000 to billions of data, and at a much higher resolution. That will help us tremendously.”

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