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Citizen-science program finds dust storms are occurring with record-breaking frequency

Saskia Mabin, Friday December 6, 2019 - 14:16 EDT
Audience submitted image
Clouds of dust roll toward Argent Street in Broken Hill on November 29, 2019. - Audience submitted

Dust storms have been occurring with record-breaking frequency in 2019, according to data collected from a citizen-science DustWatch program.



The program, now in its 15th year, has volunteers across western New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.

According to the most recent data available, Broken Hill in the far-west of NSW experienced 115 hours of dust during the month of October.

Further east, the small township of Ivanhoe had double that amount, with 230 hours of dust recorded.

Senior scientist with the Department of Environment, Stephan Heidenreich, said the figures were record breaking.

"Even at the height of the last drought we were not going anywhere near those numbers," he said.



Mr Heidenreich said dust storms have been having a greater impact on more populated, urban locations.

"The unusual thing this time is actually that the central-west and the north-west have enough exposed soil to create their own dust storms," he said.

"It's having a serious impact even on the coastal fringe.

"A lot of dust storms are making it to Sydney and Newcastle."

Continuous dust storms 'a real kick in the guts'

Jed Wilson is from Yalda Downs Station in north-west NSW.

After destocking completely at the beginning of January 2018, the 20 millimetres of rain that fell on his property a month ago brought a small amount of hope, but it was short-lived.



"You're just starting to see a bit of a future and think about livestock again, but then you have these dust storms that come through," Mr Wilson said.

"Within two or three hours you lose not only everything that was there, but you lose an inch of top soil again."

Mr Wilson lost a number of large trees and the verandah of his shed in a dust storm that hit the station at the end of November.

"Some of these trees are 30, 40 years old and they were just ripped out of the ground like they didn't exist," he said.



Mr Wilson said continuous dust storms have made him question whether the work he does to protect the soil on his property has been worthwhile.

"We're all about trying to preserve the landscape with soil conservation, and then you see days like that come through and you wonder how far your efforts go," he said.



Why are they happening more frequently?

Senior forecaster from the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), Grace Legge, said a combination of factors, including the drought and weather patterns, have been to blame for the increased frequency of dust storms.

"We are in a very severe drought so that means that because we are not seeing that growth, we are seeing a lot more areas with dust," she said.



Ms Legge said dust storms have been usual occurrences during spring, but they have been continuing into summer as well due to a climate driver called the Southern Annular Mode (SAM).

"The SAM is basically looking at those westerly winds and those cold fronts setting in," she said.

"At the moment we are in a negative SAM, which means we are seeing those cold fronts move a little bit further north and they are getting into those areas that have been very dry and have a lot of dust around."

More dust storms on the horizon

Mr Heidenreich said most people would still remember the chaotic dust storm that cloaked the east coast in a thick, red haze a decade ago, on 23 September 2009.

That storm was estimated to cost the NSW economy almost $300 million.





A storm of that magnitude has not been repeated this year but Mr Heidenreich said it was likely that it could happen again.

"We haven't seen that kind of dust storm this year entirely because we haven't had the wind, but it is certainly possible to happen," he said.



Mr Heidenreich said wind strengths have been predicted to increase over the coming summer so there would "most likely" be more dust storms until a decent rainfall event occurred.

"December to January is normally our windiest period and the little groundcover that is left from the rainfall some areas had in May is deteriorating, so there is more exposed ground," he said.

Despite predictions from the BOM for a "drier than average" outlook, Mr Wilson said he felt confident things would turn around soon.

"I think the weather is getting pretty stirred up and that rings a lot of bells that it's similar to the end of the drought in 2009," he said.

"That's probably just wishful thinking, but I think we all need to be a bit wishful at the moment. It's the only thing really dragging us through."


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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