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2 March 2012 | PR 12/41

Loughborough geographers reveal more Icelandic dust to come…


Image from the MODIS satellite taken on 5 October 2004 showing a large dust storm in southern Iceland. Courtesy of NASA/GSFC, Rapid Response.

Loughborough University’s geographers have gained a unique insight into natural dust emissions from Iceland which could provide an important step towards better understanding of the role of dust in global climate change.

The Loughborough researchers, led by Professor Joanna Bullard, worked with Professor Joseph Prospero from the University of Miami, Florida, to analyse a six-year record of airborne dust from the island of Heimaey, 17km south of Iceland.

The results show seasonal spikes in dust concentration and dispersal. Tiny sediment particles are transported south over the Atlantic Ocean during dust storms. Around a third of the air masses associated with these storms reach the UK and Ireland and a similar number disperse over the North Atlantic.  

Dust levels in Heimaey increase in the spring and early summer when ice melts and water flows from under the ice caps carrying large quantities of fine sediment with it. The sediment is dumped on the plains in front of the ice caps and, when it dries out, strong winds can blow the fine material offshore. In the short term sediment supply from glaciers may increase due to climate change, and this may result in more dust storms from Iceland.

The dust may provide an important source of iron for the Atlantic’s marine ecosystems. For humans, too much exposure to dust can lead to long-term illnesses including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. But natural dust emissions are excluded from European Air Quality Standards as there is insufficient knowledge about them to allow its inclusion.

Existing dust research tends to focus on tropical and arid regions in Africa and the Middle East. This study is one of the few to look at high-latitude areas, and is the first to review measurements over such a long time period (February 1997 to December 2002).

Prof Bullard explains:

“There is considerable interest in the global distribution of dust sources and factors affecting dust emissions, but dust from cold areas such as Iceland is poorly understood. 

“The patterns we see in Iceland are likely to be occurring in other high latitude glacierized regions, and we predict this cold climate dust activity will become more widespread and intense as the planet warms.

“Our findings raise important questions about air quality and human health impacts, and highlight the potential risks due to dust transported over the Atlantic to Europe.”

The study features in this week’s Science journal (2 March 2012). The Loughborough researchers received funding from the University and a Royal Society grant.

Prof Bullard and co-author Dr Richard Hodgkins are now seeking funding to develop ‘fingerprints’ of the Icelandic dust sediments to trace their wider distribution and impacts over a longer period.


For all media enquiries contact:

Amanda Overend
PR Officer
Loughborough University
T: 01509 223491
E: A.J.Overend@lboro.ac.uk 

Notes for editors:

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It was awarded the coveted Sunday Times University of the Year 2008-09 title, and is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in national newspaper league tables. In the 2011 National Student Survey, Loughborough was voted one of the top universities in the UK, and has topped the Times Higher Education league for the UK’s Best Student Experience every year since the poll's inception in 2006. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, the University has been awarded six Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

Loughborough is also the UK’s premier university for sport. It has perhaps the best integrated sports development environment in the world and is home to some of the country’s leading coaches, sports scientists and support staff. It also has the country’s largest concentration of world-class training facilities across a wide range of sports.

It is a member of the 1994 Group of 19 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience.

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