Dust storms are frequent in Australia and can have a large impact on soil resources, the economy and people.
Dust storms are created by wind erosion. They cause soil and nutrient losses to farmers, degrade natural environments, and damage human health and infrastructure.
The cost of dust storms can be large. In September 2009 dust blown from South Australia and NSW into Sydney turned the sky red and created a health hazard. The research article Dust Storms – what do they really cost? (CSIRO, 2013) estimates that the storm removed 2.5 million tonnes of soil and directly cost the NSW economy around $300 million.
Due to the significant impacts of dust storms, we need to gather as much information as we can so we can understand and, ultimately, stop them.
As land condition is a major cause of dust storms, monitoring and understanding dust storms can influence decisions about land management. We coordinate Community DustWatch, a national initiative to monitor dust storms across Australia. The project started in 2002 and is one of Australia’s longest-running citizen-science programs.
Community volunteers around Australia record data and observations about dust in their local area and send them to OEH. We analyse the data and share it with the community, researchers, and government agencies such as the NSW Environmental Protection Authority, health authorities, the Bureau of Meteorology and NSW Local Land Services.
There are close to 40 monitoring stations in southern Australia worth about $600,000. Community volunteers help maintain the stations and report dust activity in their area. The contribution of the volunteers saves the project about $400,000 a year.
During a dust storm, the DustWatch team can obtain key information within a few hours and give an early warning of dust to government agencies and the community. In the past, obtaining such information took days.
Community DustWatch has provided a better understanding of the causes and costs of dust storms. This has led natural-resource agencies to increase their investment in groundcover projects across Australia and landholders to change how they manage their land.
DustWatch instruments and data have also been used to:
- test models of wind erosion and dust transport
- confirm dust storms measured by satellite imagery
- convert visibility records of the Bureau of Meteorology into dust concentrations.
DustWatch is now the leading source of general and scientific information about wind erosion, dust, groundcover and smoke across Australia.