The West has become 500 percent dustier in the past two centuries due to westward U.S. expansion and accompanying human activity beginning in the 1800s, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Sediment records from dust blown into alpine lakes in southwest Colorado's San Juan Mountains over millennia indicates the sharp rise in dust deposits coincided with railroad, ranching and livestock activity in the middle of the last century, said geological sciences Assistant Professor Jason Neff, lead author on the study. The results have implications ranging from ecosystem alteration to human health, he said.
"From about 1860 to 1900, the dust deposition rates shot up so high that we initially thought there was a mistake in our data," said Neff. "But the evidence clearly shows the western U.S. had it's own Dust Bowl beginning in the 1800s when the railroads went in and cattle and sheep were introduced into the rangelands."
A paper on the research funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was published in the Feb. 24 issue of Nature Geoscience. Co-authors included CU-Boulder's Ashley Ballantyne, Lang Farmer and Corey Lawrence, Cornell University's Natalie Mahowald, the University of Arizona's Jessica Conroy and Jonathan Overpeck, Christopher Landry of the Center of Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton, Colo., the University of Utah's Tom Painter and the U.S. Geological Survey's Richard Reynolds.
The study indicates "dust fall" in the West over the past century was five to seven times heavier than at any time in the previous 5,000 years, said Neff, who is also a faculty member in CU-Boulder's Environmental Studies Program. While some fine-grained dust from Asia periodically falls on Colorado's San Juans, the abundance of larger-sized dust particles in the lake sediments there indicates most of the dust originated regionally in the Southwest, said the authors.
While droughts can trigg
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University of Colorado at Boulder