Dust Storms Escalate, Prompting Environmental Fears

Excerpts:

The scene Landry witnessed that day was the most severe example of a phenomenon that has overtaken parts of the West this year, one that could exacerbate a slew of environmental problems there in the years to come. The Colorado Rockies, including the headwaters of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande, have experienced 11 serious dust storms this year, a record for the six years researchers have been tracking them.

More important, an increasing amount of airborne dust is blanketing the region, affecting how fast the snowpack melts, when local plants bloom and what quality of air residents are breathing.

The dust storms are a harbinger of a broader phenomenon, researchers say, as global warming translates into less precipitation and a population boom intensifies the activities that are disturbing the dust in the first place. Jayne Belnap, a research ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey who has studied the issue, predicts that by midcentury, the fragility of the region's soil "will be equal to that of the Dust Bowl days."

…Dust storms are not new in the West, but the fact that so much dust is on the move reflects that across vast areas, soil is being loosened by off-road vehicles, livestock grazing, and road development for oil and gas production, much of it on public land. A Washington Post analysis of federal data from areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management found that between 2004 and 2008, off-road vehicle use rose 19 percent, the number of oil and gas wells increased 24 percent and grazing acreage climbed 7 percent.