Environmental Research Letters
The recent dust storm in the Middle East (September 2015) was publicized in the media as a sign of an impending ‘Dust Bowl.’ Its severity, demonstrated by extreme aerosol optical depth in the atmosphere in the 99th percentile compared to historical data, was attributed to the ongoing regional conflict. However, surface meteorological and remote sensing data, as well as regional climate model simulations, support an alternative hypothesis: the historically unprecedented aridity played a more prominent role, as evidenced by unusual climatic and meteorological conditions prior to and during the storm. Remotely sensed normalized difference vegetation index demonstrates that vegetation cover was high in 2015 relative to the prior drought and conflict periods, suggesting that agricultural activity was not diminished during that year, thus negating the media narrative. Instead, meteorological simulations using the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model show that the storm was associated with a cyclone and ‘Shamal’ winds, typical for dust storm generation in this region, that were immediately followed by an unusual wind reversal at low levels that spread dust west to the Mediterranean Coast. These unusual meteorological conditions were aided by a significant reduction in the critical shear stress due to extreme dry and hot conditions, thereby enhancing dust availability for erosion during this storm. Concluding, unusual aridity, combined with unique synoptic weather patterns, enhanced dust emission and westward long-range transport across the region, thus generating the extreme storm.
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