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Atmosphere, Biosphere, Climate, Geosphere, Hydrosphere, Oceans



In 2001 the remnants of a Chinese dust storm were deposited throughout western North America. Imagine, dust from China is transported across the Pacific Ocean and much of the North American continent! In 2007, NASA's CALIPSO satellite mission detected and traced a dust storm that originated in China, completely circled the Earth, and returned to China in 13 days. The dust started a second circuit but was eventually removed through rain and clouds over the Pacific Ocean. In 2005 an African dust cloud the size of the continental United States traveled from the Sahara Desert in Africa to Florida in the United States. African dust events, such as this one, have triggered toxic algae blooms in the North Atlantic. In short, any change in one of Earth's spheres (hydrosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, or cryosphere) can cause changes in one or more of the other spheres and can affect the entire Earth system. The nature and impact of such changes are often unknown or unpredictable due to the complex interactions among the components of the Earth's spheres.

Across the globe, particularly in arid regions, there have always been dust storms. Dust storms can vary from regional phenomena, such as the Great Dust Bowl period in the United States during the 1930s, to global phenomena, such as for more recent dust storms originating in China and Africa. Satellite and ground studies indicate there may be a link between the dust storms and desertification which in turn may be linked to human activities such as grazing and land use. Climate change is also being considered as a culprit causing loss of plant cover in a region as rainfall patterns change.

The impact of global dust events are wide ranging. Some of the impacts are beneficial and others not. For example there is a clear link between dust and increased reports of asthma. Dust is also known to transport viruses and bacteria from one part of the world to another. There may be a link to decreases in hurricanes and amount of rainfall from monsoons, coral die-offs, phytoplankton blooms and red tides. African dust, over time, has been the primary source of the soils in the Caribbean and in the upper layer for the tropical rain forests in South America.

As climate changes, so will the Earth system. Changes will occur in the amount of dust and other aerosols in the atmosphere. As citizens of the Earth we need to understand what happens when the air and dust in China or Africa travels to the United States. Also, as desertification increases due to changing climate, local dust storms are likely to increase, as happened in United States during the Dust Bowl era, also known as the "Dirty Thirties" (1931-39) as well as in the 1950s and 1970s. An understanding of dust and its interactions within the Earth system are needed to predict and mitigate potential negative effects that can occur in our local, regional, and global environment. Dr. Karen Kohfeld, a researcher of paleoclimate, stresses the importance of the dust cycle because of its impact on the carbon cycle. She has stated, "Dust is a really good example of how land, atmosphere, and climate are connected."


The increasing importance of understanding dust and its role in the Earth system is driving new research and an analysis of past data. There is growing evidence that dust storms are on the increase in China. Research on major dust storms, such as done by NASA's CALIPSO satellite mission team, has reinforced the idea that major dust storms can have a global reach. Itsushi Uno of Kyushu University, a lead author on a study that found a global circulation of a dust storm that started in the Taklimakan Desert in China, states, "Asian dust may have a more important role in many processes than thought by the atmospheric sciences community at present." Your team, a group of atmospheric interns working on the CALIPSO team, has been asked to analyze the impacts of China dust events on the Earth system. Your team should provide evidence and images to support your analysis.

The increasing importance of understanding dust and its role in the Earth system is driving new research and an analysis of past data. Dust, according to section 7.5.1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has several complex feedbacks and forcings on all parts of the Earth system. Forcing simply describes the effect of a particular influence on Earth's systems. For example, this diagram shows the effect of aerosols (including dust) on the amount of solar radiation absorbed and reflected by the atmosphere. Andrew Goudie, professor of geography at the University of Oxford, has stated, "Dust is one of the least understood components of the Earth's atmosphere, but one which may have a greater importance than has been realized up until now for climate change. The cross-boundary nature of dust makes it a truly global issue and one that is not receiving the attention it deserves."

Your team has been working with NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). GISS is conducting research on the impact of dust forcings on the Earth system from dust storms. GISS officials are interested in your team's Earth System Science (ESS) analysis of dust from a whole Earth perspective. If your team's ESS analysis considers these connections and interconnections to be problematic, the GISS officials want to know whether and how to mitigate the increase and severity of dust storms.

**Note: Use of NASA's Earth Observations data can help track dust. Try using the Aerosol Particle Radius data from Terra/MODIS. A primer on how to use NEO is found here.


Date: 2/23/2010

Scenario Images:

Dust storm across western and central Africa from NASA's Visible Earth
Dust storm across western and central Africa
Full description. Image: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

China Dust Storm in April 2001 from NASA's Visible Earth
China Dust Storm in April 2001 from NASA's Visible Earth
Full description and animation. Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Dust storm image
Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas during the Dust Bowl Era (1931-39) in the United States. More... Image: NOAA Photo Library, Historic NWS collection



Atmospheric Dust (Cycle A)
Atmospheric Dust is a BBC4 radio production. The program runs for 30 minutes. It provides an introduction to dust in the atmosphere and an overview of the positive and negative aspects of dust in the atmosphere and its interaction with the spheres of the Earth system.
The audio program is streamed using Realplayer.


China Blanketed by a Huge Dust Storm (Cycle A)
Personal interview with an observer in Beijing, China.


China Dust Storm Pollutes Air in the Eastern United States in April 2001 (Flatmap) (Cycle A)
The site provides an animation of the movement of dust from a dust storm in China as it tracks from China to the eastern United States. There is also a series of panels showing the movement day-by-day.


Dust 'is hidden climate problem' (Cycle A)
The article provides a good overview of dust and some of its global impacts on the Earth system. The related link on the page to NOAA takes you to a collection of dust event images which have geographical insets.


Dust in Earth System Can Affect Oceans, Carbon Cycle, Temperatures, and Health (Cycle A)
Provides a discussion on the interconnections of atmosphere, land, in relation to dust.


Farming kicked up dust in West Africa (Cycle A)
Samples of sediments off the coast of West Africa show a connection between agriculture practice and dust over the last couple of centuries.


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC report) section 7.5.1 (Cycle A)
This section of the report provides a nice summary of the role of dust in the Earth system. Other parts of section seven discuss the general role of aerosols. Well worth reading as background for this module.


NASA's Earth Observatory: From the Dust Bowl to the Sahel (Cycle A)
The site provides a description of the Dust Bowl and parallels with the Sahel region in Africa. Causes and impacts of dust storms are discussed. Texts, images, and links to other resources are provided.


The Climate Literacy Handbook – Principle 2 (Cycle A)
The Climate Literacy Handbook provides an overview of the key ideas needed to understand climate. Select Principle 2 for the information related dust.


African Dust Linked To Hurricane Strength (Cycle B)
An audio report and transcript on recent findings connecting hurricane strength to dust. Another perspective on this study, with a video, can be found here .


Airborne Dust Causes Ripple Effect On Climate Far Away (Cycle B)
The article discusses the effects of African Dust on the climate in regions thousands of kilometers (miles) away.


Airborne Dust Reduction Plays Larger Than Expected Role In Determining Atlantic Temperature (Cycle B)
Dust and its effect on sea surface temperatures.


Arctic Glacial Dust May Affect Climate and Health in North America and Europe (Cycle B)
An example of dust from other source regions and its impact.


Dust Storms In Sahara Desert Sustain Life In Atlantic Ocean (Cycle B)
Research indicates that dust is necessary for plant growth in the north Atlantic.


Pollution Can Convert Airborne Iron Into Soluble Form Required For Phytoplankton Growth (Cycle B)
Reports on the role of pollution in stimulating phytoplankton growth in the Pacific and its positive role on the fishing grounds. Another perspective of dust growth promoting phytoplankton is found here for the African waters.


Science at NASA: Dust begets Dust (Cycle B)
Research suggests that atmospheric dust may lead to dry weather.


Science at NASA: Dust Kills Florida Fish (Cycle B)
Research shows a link between fish kills and dust from Africa.


Science at NASA: Mobile Homes for Microbes (Cycle B)
Dust's role in transporting microbes.


Scientists vacuum up the data on dust (Cycle B)
Summary of a AAAS special meeting on dust. Very useful article that looks at both the positive and negative aspects of dust and future changes in dust storms.


The Bodélé depression: a single spot in the Sahara that provides most of the mineral dust to the ... (Cycle B)
A good article about the broad connections in the Earth system. The article is technical, but informative.


Atmospheric Physicists Develop Dust Storm Forecasting System (Cycle C)
A video clip on the efforts to predict dust storm forecasting for use in Arizona.


Getting to the root of killer dust storms (Cycle C)
Article discusses methods to mitigate dust storms.


NASA Explains "Dust Bowl" Drought (Cycle C)
The article reports on a study linking sea surface temperatures as a possible cause for the drought that resulted in the Dust Bowl. The change in temperature caused a shift in large scale weather patterns. Understanding the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl are as important to help us understand the future changes that can occur in the Earth system as climate changes.


NASA Video of Dust and Other Aerosols (Cycle C)
See this Paint by Particle video and other images depicting aerosols in the atmosphere from the NASA Visualization Studio.


NASA's Earth Observatory: Aerosols and Climate Change (Cycle C)
The article discuss some of the uncertainty in predicting the impact of aerosols on climate and differences in the effects of human produced aerosols, and natural aerosols (e.g. dust).


NASA's Earth Observatory: Temporary Drought or Permanent Desert? (Cycle C)
Definition, causes, and affects of desertification. Good motion map of rainfall patterns and vegetation patterns in the Sahel area of Africa.


Particulates and Health: Dust-Riding Microbes Pose Health Risk (Cycle C)
Microbes borne along on dust particles could pose a significant risk to human health, transporting diseases across significant distances.


The Green Wall of China (Cycle C)
The article reports on efforts by China to slow down desertification and reduce the intensity of dust storms.


Sample Investigations:


African dust leads to large toxic algal bloom (Cycle A)
The link will take you to a two page NASA publication on algal blooms. The second page of the link has a classroom investigation titled: Algal Blooms: Healthy vs. Harmful.
Difficulty: intermediate


Climate Education Update: More than enough dust (Cycle A)
The article is a newsletter from the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Research Facility run by the Department of Education. There are two activities, originally developed by NASA, that are useful for the classroom. The first is a read and discuss assignment on the NASA News article All the World's a Stage...for Dust which is an excellent discussion with resources about dust. The second activity, Migrating Dust, is a simulation of how dust migrates using paper dots.
Difficulty: intermediate


Forecasting Dust Storms (Cycle A)
This module is part of the Mesoscale Meteorology Primer. The module discusses conditions required for a dust storm, geographic distributions, and frequency of dust storms. The module also explores the fate of dust in the atmosphere including dispersion, advection, and settling. Originally designed as a tutorial for weather forecasters, the module provides a brief tutorial of satellite imagery and models used for forecasting dust storms. There is a quiz at the end of the module to determine mastery of the content presented. Registration is required.
Difficulty: advanced
Adaptations for Beginners: The module is organized into subtopics. Selection of subtopics, such as geographical distribution of dust storms, would be useful for beginners. Some of the animation will also be useful.
Adaptations for Intermediate: The module is organized into subtopics. Selection of subtopics, such as satellite imagery, would be useful for intermediate learners. Some of the animations will also be useful.


MY NASA DATA: Dust for Kids and Link to Interactive Lesson (Cycle A)
A series of suggested demonstrations and environmental observations to familiarize students with dust in the atmosphere. A simple interactive lesson to explain aerosols, of which dust is a type, can be found here . Choose Atmospheric Aerosols Book.
Difficulty: beginner


NASA Connect: The Measurement of All Things: Atmospheric Detectives (Cycle A)
The activity discussed in the educator's guide involves collecting aerosols using a sticky surface. The collected particulate matter is then observed by the students. This activity is a good starting point for a class to observe that aerosols are present in the atmosphere. NOTE: The satellite reference in this document, PICASSO-CENA, is no longer correct. The mission name was changed to CALIPSO, an acronym for Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation.
NASA Publication Number: EG-1999-09-02-LaRC.
Difficulty: beginner
Adaptation for Intermediate/Advanced: The original lesson refers to using satellite images and asking students to address the following questions:

"Students will be challenged to interpret a mystery image on screen using what, where, and why questions to guide them. After interpreting the mystery image, students will be prepared to determine density or concentration of aerosols over two different regions of the Earth. Students will use this information like altitude, distance, and latitude and longitude to interpret the data" (p. 1)

NASA's Visible Earth is an excellent source for images. When you enter the site use the search box and type in the words African Dust to obtain a wide selection of satellite imagery of African Dust movement not only into the Atlantic Ocean but also into Europe. Geographic variety can be obtained by searching on China Dust which will also provide a wide selection of stunning satellite images.


Aerosol Viewing using MY NASA DATA (Cycle B)
This activity brings you directly to the Live Access Serve in MY NASA DATA, a site that allows you to access several different types of satellite data. For the study of aerosols we will use data from MISR (Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer) which is on the Terra satellite. MISR website has some very good animation tools to view aerosols. At MY NASA DATA you will be able to select a single location and track the aerosols at that location over time, select a region and look at monthly aerosol distribution, or even select and display multiple months. MY NASA DATA 5 video tutorials.
Difficulty: advanced
Adaptations for Beginners: Images can be prepared in advance to show to the class.
Students should select China or North Africa initially to follow the dust plumes generated by those storms.


Dust Bowl Days (Cycle B)
The lessons designed for grades 3-5, provide some excellent visuals and resources to understand the impact on people and the land resulting from the Dust Bowl, and the dust storms associated with this major climatic event.
Difficulty: beginner
Adaptations for Intermediate/Advanced: The learners could extend this investigation by looking for first-hand accounts for other regions in the world that have experienced similar events as the Dust Bowl.


Dust Storm Viewing with NASA MODIS Rapidfire (Cycle B)
There are several sources for finding dust storms from satellite views. The MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) instrument which flies on both the Terra and Aqua satellites acquires images of the Earth in near real-time for users studying fires, smoke, dust, and other environmental events requiring satellite information as quickly as possible. The link for this project will take you to the most recent (back to 2000) dust events observed around the world. The use of this exploration tool will allow you to look for and track images related to global dust and plan for dust observations in your area. Type "dust" into the search window to explore the images and download them into Google Earth, if it is installed on your computer. The technology here will enable you to make the dust storm and its tracking and areas of impact very visible.
Difficulty: intermediate
Adaptations for Advanced: Students can be asked to find a series of daily images to animate the movement of the dust event over time. They can also be asked to predict the impact on the Earth system as the dust storm moves across the Earth.


MY NASA DATA: Tropical Atlantic Aerosols (Cycle B)
Students use satellite data to track the path of atmospheric dust from Africa across the Atlantic for one year.
Difficulty: intermediate


Aerosol PBL Modules from the CALIPSO outreach program (Cycle C)
The link will enter the CALIPSO outeach site. The site has two Problem-Based Learning modules. The two modules, Aerosols and Pollution and Aerosols and Clouds.
Difficulty: intermediate


MY NASA DATA: Dust Storms (Cycle C)
A list of suggested activities to study dust events both locally and globally. There are also links to other sources of dust data from the OMI instrument on the Aura satellite . There is also a discussion of transport of bacteria and viruses by dust.
Difficulty: intermediate
Adaptations for Beginners: Several of the described environmental observations can be done by beginners
Adaptations for Advanced: Several of the suggested projects have extensions that allow a greater depth.


Observational Experiment with Aerosols: An example from NASA's Earth Observatory (Cycle C)
The link for this investigation will take you to a project conducted with scientists and students using GLOBE protocols and a sun photometer. The paper produced by the students can be accessed here . GLOBE is a program that allows you and your students protocols and methods of reporting environmental measures on a wide variety of topics. One of the areas of study involves the use of a handheld sunphotometer to measure aerosols on a daily basis. A project using sunphotometers would provide locally collected data for you and your students to observe changes due to passage of aerosols such as dust. An example lesson developed by teachers using a Problem-Based Learning format can be found here . A full explanation of the photometer and possible field studies are located here . On this page scroll down and select a Powerpoint slide show on Aerosols.
A great link that illustrates how the sunphotometer works can be found at the CALIPSO satellite mission outreach site by clicking on this link
Difficulty: beginner


Why monitor air quality? (Cycle C)
This is an excellent overview of how you and your students can participate in a citizen science project to study air quality. Atmospheric dust, an aerosol, can dramatically affect air quality. The article also provides instructions for accessing and interpreting satellite images, aerosol optical depth measures (an indication of the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere) from the MODIS instrument on the Terra or Aqua satellites which measure the total aerosol concentration in a column of air, and CALIPSO satellite data which is used to determine at what altitude in the atmosphere aerosols are located. Data on aerosols can be found for your local area or for dust events from Africa or China.
Difficulty: advanced
Adaptations for Beginners: The article discusses simple sky observations that could be done with beginners.




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Systems, order, and organization
      • Evidence, models, and explanation
      • Constancy, change, and measurement
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural hazards
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Nature of science
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Interactions of energy and matter
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
        • Geochemical cycles
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Personal and community health
        • Environmental quality
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
  • Mathematics
    Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2000 This set of Standards proposes the mathematics concepts that all students should have the opportunity to learn. Each of these ten Standards applies across all grades, prekindergarten through grade 12. Even though each of these ten Standards applies to all grades, emphases and expectations will vary both within and between the grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). For instance, the emphasis on number is greatest in prekindergarten through grade 2, and by grades 9-12, number receives less instructional attention. Also the total time for mathematical instruction will be divided differently according to particular needs in each grade band - for example, in the middle grades, the majority of instructional time would address algebra and geometry.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to patterns, functions, symbols, and models so that all students—
      • use mathematical models and analyze change in both real and abstract contexts.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to geometry and spatial sense so that all students—
      • use visualization and spatial reasoning to solve problems both within and outside of mathematics.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to data analysis, statistics, and probability so that all students—
      • pose questions and collect, organize, and represent data to answer those questions;
      • interpret data using methods of exploratory data analysis;
      Mathematics instructional programs should focus on solving problems as part of understanding mathematics so that all students—
      • apply a wide variety of strategies to solve problems and adapt the strategies to new situations;
      • monitor and reflect on their mathematical thinking in solving problems.
      Mathematics instructional programs should focus on learning to reason and construct proofs as part of understanding mathematics so that all students—
      • select and use various types of reasoning and methods of proof as appropriate.
      Mathematics instructional programs should emphasize mathematical representations to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • create and use representations to organize, record, and communicate mathematical ideas;
      • use representations to model and interpret physical, social, and mathematical phenomena.
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      • How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth’s surface
      The identities and lives of individuals and people are rooted in particular places and in those human constructs called regions. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical and human characteristics of places
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface
      People are central to geography in that human activities help shape Earth’s surface, human settlements and structures are part of Earth’s surface, and humans compete for control of Earth’s surface. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth’s surface
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How human actions modify the physical environment
      • How physical systems affect human systems
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students are proficient in the use of technology.
      • Students develop positive attitudes toward technology uses that support lifelong learning, collaboration, personal pursuits, and productivity.
      • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
      • Students use technology tools to process data and report results.
      • Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions.
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