‘Apocalyptic Skies’: Dust Storms Devastate Gulf States and Syria | Climate crisis


Blankets of thick, grainy haze and ominous orange skies since early April have sent thousands to hospitals and left at least four people dead in Iraq and Syria.

The apocalyptic scenes touched everyone. Syrian hospitals are on standby for residents unable to breathe. Iraq forced schools and offices to close in some provinces and on May 16 declared a state of emergency. In the Gulf states, flights were halted in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates issued dust storm alerts.

“The increasing frequency of dust storms means more trouble, more loss of life and property, and more destruction,” said Nasim Hossein Hamzeh, dust project researcher at the Air and Climate Technology Company in Iran.

Dust and sand storms are an atmospheric phenomenon, representing one of the most serious, although underestimated, natural hazards in dry regions. In the Middle East, they frequently cover arid and semi-arid lands, usually in late spring and summer. This year has been particularly severe, experts say. They arrived much earlier than normal and are spreading over a much wider area.

A strong dust storm is advancing towards the shore in Kuwait on May 23. Photography: Noufal Ibrahim/EPA

“This is very concerning. Dust storms do not just affect a specific country or place in the world and can have far-reaching consequences globally,” said Muge Akpinar-Elci, dean of the school. public health from the University of Nevada.

Dust particles can travel thousands of miles. All that is needed to trigger a storm is wind, a source of dust where there is little or no vegetation, and dry conditions. One of the most common routes in the region is when strong northwesterly winds, called camel, push cold air across the dry, sandy soils of Iraq, picking up dust between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and carrying it to the Arabian Peninsula. This year, the storms have spread to Saudi Arabia over other Gulf states, as well as parts of Jordan.

Northern Iraq has been particularly exposed, witnessing a sandstorm almost every week since March. In May, Issa al-Fayyad, the general director of the technical department of the environment ministry, said the country faces an average of 272 dust storms a year. He predicts it will reach 300 days of dust per year by 2050 and warns that climate change is the key driver of this increase.

Mohammed Mahmoud, director of the climate and water program at the Middle East Institute, similarly warns that the once-rare occurrence will only become more frequent as the climate crisis increases aridity and warms the already dry region, while altering weather patterns to create more storms.

“Just look at the sky. If the visual of a dark orange apocalyptic sky isn’t enough, it’s the net impact of these multiple dust storms happening quickly,” he said.

According to the Royal Commission for the city of Riyadh.

For Manna Alwadei from the Department of Environmental Health at Imam Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University in Saudi Arabia, “this year could be one of the worst for Saudi Arabia, as they are happening more frequently than before.”

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The consequences are relentless. Alwadei’s own father was hospitalized with asthma exacerbated by the storms. Impacts range from respiratory illnesses and reduced crop yields to declining property values ​​and driving foreign workers away from polluted locations. According to the United Nations, dust storms cost the region’s economy $13bn (£10.3bn) a year.

Since storms can carry harmful pollutants, exposure to sandstorms can cause a myriad of health issues. A series of storms in May sent at least 5,000 people in Iraq to hospital with respiratory problems and resulted in the death of one person, Health Ministry spokesman Seif al-Badr said. Three more people died in the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, the Associated Press reported.

“The impact of dust storms crosses regional and continental boundaries,” Akpinar said. “So it’s not somebody else’s problem, it’s everybody’s problem.”


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