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

 

Environment Editor

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”.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Casual Visitor Experience Assistants

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To work within the Visitor Experience Departm...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services & Office / Accounts Administrator

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This online retailer of electronic acces...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy