Climate Change and Desert Dust Storm events in Cyprus

by Paraskevi Kinni and Panayiotis Kouis, Special Scientists of LIFE MEDEA project, Medical School, University of Cyprus

14:24:27,05/15/2018
The two Cypriot scientists “outline” the phenomena of climate change and the storms of desert dust

Based on the most recent reports from scientific organisations and multidisciplinary research consortiums such as the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change and the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the continuing phenomenon of global warming constitutes one of the major global health threats of this century.

Furthermore, the same reports highlight the strong impact of climate change across the Eastern Mediterranean through increased average temperatures, reduced rainfall and recurrent and more intense dust storms.

During the last decade (1998-2008), the frequency of dust storms in Cyprus has risen with an average pace of approximately 2 extra dust days per year and according to climate change projections this trend will persist (Achilleos, J Air Waste Manag Assoc 2014).

Desert Dust Storm is a phenomenon caused by a considerable amount of small particles that are evenly distributed in the atmosphere, following strong turbulent winds that erode sand from arid and semi-arid areas.

Towards the formation of such dust storms, three conditions have to be met: presence of a dust source, strong winds, and low ground surface coverage. Dust storms can travel thousands of kilometres across countries and continents carrying along other pollutants on the way and depositing particles far away from their origin.

As expected, inhabited areas that border deserts or other semi-arid areas are specifically susceptible to Desert Dust Storms. Examples of such regions include the mega-cities in the Far-East (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul) that are in close proximity to the great Mongolian and Asian deserts, the south-western US states (California, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona) that are located across the great North America plains and of course the Mediterranean region consisting of Cyprus that is affected by southerly and easterly winds that transfer dust from the Sahara and the Levant respectively.

The Mediterranean region is a particularly vulnerable area to climate change as climatic models indicate that within the next 100 years mean annual temperature increases are expected to reach within the range of 2.2 and 5.1 degrees Celsius.

Similarly, for the same period, the decrease in mean annual precipitation is expected to be as low as between -4% and -27% (International Panel on Climate Change 2013). As a result, long term droughts in the region, further enhanced by pasture overgrazing, deforestation and frequent large-scale wildfires will lead to the development of favourable conditions for dust storms of higher frequency and intensity.

It is expected that the precipitation decreases in the Mediterranean region will negatively affect soil moisture thus resulting in consolidated soil particles that are easily transported by the wind and decreasing plant growth leading to eventually diminishing vegetation coverage (Yang, Atmospheric Environ 2007).

Up to date, numerous adverse health effects have been linked to desert dust storms such as worsening symptoms in allergic, asthmatic, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and Cardiovascular Disease patients.

Apart from chronic disease patients, specific subgroups of the population are also particularly vulnerable to dust storms. These subgroups include the elderly as a result of the natural decline and deterioration of their immune system and small children due to the fact that their lung function and immune system are still developing.

Although the precise biological mechanism of toxicity remains unclear and requires further investigation, the health effects of dust storms are attributed to the potentially harmful inorganic and organic components of dust that can enter the human body through the respiratory track.

Particles with aerodynamic diameter of less than 10 micrometres (PM10) or of less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5) can reach deep into the respiratory system and trigger inflammation and oxidative stress responses while the wide array of bacterial and fungal organisms that are transported with the dust may result in respiratory infections (Schweitzer M, Environ Res, 2018).

More specifically for Cyprus, research data suggest that increased PM10 concentrations during desert dust storms are associated with increased rates of mortality (Neophytou, J. Expo. Sci. Environ. Epidemiol.  2013) and increased rates of hospital admissions especially due to cardiovascular causes (Middleton, Environ. Health, 2008).

Taking into consideration the important impact of climate change and desert dust storms on human health and the pressing need to protect the public and susceptible subgroups in the affected regions, the European Union has funded the LIFE project MEDEA (“Mitigating the Health Effects of Desert Dust Storms Using Exposure-Reduction Approaches”) in an effort to support the development and implementation of a climate change adaptation strategy to dust storm events that could be applied to all Mediterranean and south European countries.

The MEDEA partnership brings together an interdisciplinary consortium of eight partners (University of Cyprus, Cyprus University of Technology, University of Crete, Soroka Clinical and Research Center, E.n.A Consulting LP, Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation, Cyprus Meteorological Service and Department of Labor Inspection of Cyprus) from Cyprus, Greece and Israel. Additional information regarding the MEDEA project can be found online at the project’s website (https://www.life-medea.eu/).

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