Smog expert: Worsening Saharan dust storms to become an annual Spring fixture as climate changes


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The Independent Online

The Saharan dust storms thickening Britain’s smog and coating cars from Cornwall to Aberdeen will become increasingly strong in the coming years as a “nasty mixture” of drought, development and intensive farming in North Africa pushes up air pollution, a leading dust expert warned yesterday.

The rapid population growth in Western Sahel countries such as Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritani in the past 20 to 30 years has prompted a surge in agriculture which has greatly increased the amount of dust, Dr Robert Bryant, of Sheffield University, told The Independent.

He said there was every sign that the trend – which has also seen cars in Devon, London and Northern Ireland covered in a fine reddish-brown dust and caused breathing difficulties in asthma and chronic bronchitis sufferers – will continue.

“There has been a dramatic increase in some aspects of dust flux [emissions], which have doubled over the last 50 years. Population pressure alone is likely to exacerbate the problem and if current trends continue the amount could double again over the next 50 years,” said Dr Bryant, a Reader in Dryland Processes at the University of Sheffield.

Creating farmland generates dust because it often involves replacing the natural vegetation that keeps the soil in place, with a much sparser cover of crops that exposes the ground to the wind. Furthermore, as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of droughts, the amount of dust blown into the air will increase as more crops die and the soil becomes drier, Dr Bryant said.

The growing population in the Sahara has also generated a huge rise in other types of pollution, such as emissions from power stations, cars and mining, he added.

“These other types of pollution get mixed up with the dust to create a nasty mixture that can include airborne diseases such as foot and mouth and kind of extreme event could have serious health implications for the UK,” Dr Bryant said.

Foot and mouth disease is thought to have caused by a cloud of infected dust blown from the Sahara.

A spokesman for Department Energy and Climate Change spokesman, dismissed rumours that the Saharan dust might be radioactive. “We routinely monitor for radiation and the detected levels have not increased at all over the past few days.”

Caroline Barrere, a retired journalist from Kensington staying in the Madeiran capital of Funchal, told The Independent that she saw a giant cloud heading towards Britain at 3am on Tuesday morning as she stood on the balcony of her hotel suite overlooking the sea.

“I’ve never seen a black, charcoal mushroom cloud so enormous. It was tinged orange-pink and I thought it was the end of the world. It was really thick and enormous, like Hiroshima – it was terrifying.”

Back in Britain, people continued to feel the impact of the elevated pollution. The London Ambulance service reported a 14 per cent rise in calls for patients with respiratory issues as the city and much of the south east experienced the maximum level of 10 on the government’s air pollution index. When pollution hits these levels people are advised to “reduce physical exertion, particularly outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as sore eyes, cough or sore throat”.

Mike McKevitt, head of patient services at the British Lung Foundation, said: “It would be surprising if we didn’t see an overall increase in the number of hospital admissions as a result of the pollution, certainly among people with respiratory conditions such as asthma and COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease].”

“It isn’t just people with lung and heart disease that should be diligent. Anyone noticing that they are more breathless, or are coughing or wheezing more than normal, should contact their GP, even if they haven’t experienced any problems,” he added.

Experts said that while the amount of Saharan dust and general pollution has been high this week, it was even highly in early March and at peak times last year.

They attribute the massive publicity this bout of pollution has received to the Met Office taking responsibility for providing official pollution forecasts for the government from Ricardo-AEA, a much lower-profile private firm.

Timothy Baker, of King’s College London, said: “The Met Office has taken over and been leading its TV weather forecasts with pollution. Overnight this has pushed public awareness of pollution up to unprecedented levels – the only time it came close was in the 2003 heatwave.”

“I am very excited about the increased level of awareness because public awareness and engagement is the first step to getting action,” said Mr Baker, deputy manager of Air Quality Monitoring at King’s College’s Environmental Research Group.

But not everyone has been influenced by the recent publicity around pollution.

David Cameron came under fire for seeming to dismiss this week’s smog as entirely – rather than partly - generated by Saharan sand.

“I didn’t go for my morning run this morning. I chose to do some work instead. You can feel it. But it’s a naturally occurring weather pollution problem. It sounds extraordinary, Saharan dust, but that’s what it is,” he told BBC 1’s Breakfast programme.

His comments were in contrast to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which said: “The high level of air pollution this week is due to a combination of local emissions, light winds, pollution from the continent and dust blown over from the Sahara”.

Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary Maria Eagle said: “David Cameron is wrong to say our air quality crisis is due to just wind movement across continents. The real issue is that the government has no plan to address air pollution and has tried to hide the problem.”

Keith Taylor, a Green Party MEP, added: “Despite the ongoing threat of air pollution and the fact that the EU is taking legal proceedings against the UK on this issue, the Prime Minister has the audacity to lay the entire blame for the smog on Saharan dust.”

Boris Johnson was also criticised after telling ITV London: “I think we need to keep a little bit of sense of proportion. I cycled perfectly happily around today. I understand asthmatics and people who are particularly vulnerable perhaps need to be cautious but there’s no reason why people shouldn’t go about their daily lives.”

Onkar Sahota, a health spokesman for the London Assembly Labour group called the London Mayor’s comments “dangerously complacent”.