The Saharan dust storms thickening Britain’s smog and coating cars from Cornwall to Aberdeen will become increasingly strong in the coming years as a “nasty mixture” of drought, development and intensive farming in North Africa pushes up air pollution, a leading dust expert warned yesterday.
The rapid population growth in Western Sahel countries such as Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritani in the past 20 to 30 years has prompted a surge in agriculture which has greatly increased the amount of dust, Dr Robert Bryant, of Sheffield University, told The Independent.
He said there was every sign that the trend – which has also seen cars in Devon, London and Northern Ireland covered in a fine reddish-brown dust and caused breathing difficulties in asthma and chronic bronchitis sufferers – will continue.
“There has been a dramatic increase in some aspects of dust flux [emissions], which have doubled over the last 50 years. Population pressure alone is likely to exacerbate the problem and if current trends continue the amount could double again over the next 50 years,” said Dr Bryant, a Reader in Dryland Processes at the University of Sheffield.
Creating farmland generates dust because it often involves replacing the natural vegetation that keeps the soil in place, with a much sparser cover of crops that exposes the ground to the wind. Furthermore, as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of droughts, the amount of dust blown into the air will increase as more crops die and the soil becomes drier, Dr Bryant said.
The growing population in the Sahara has also generated a huge rise in other types of pollution, such as emissions from power stations, cars and mining, he added.
“These other types of pollution get mixed up with the dust to create a nasty mixture that can include airborne diseases such as foot and mouth and kind of extreme event could have serious health implications for the UK,” Dr Bryant said.
Foot and mouth disease is thought to have caused by a cloud of infected dust blown from the Sahara.
A spokesman for Department Energy and Climate Change spokesman, dismissed rumours that the Saharan dust might be radioactive. “We routinely monitor for radiation and the detected levels have not increased at all over the past few days.”
Caroline Barrere, a retired journalist from Kensington staying in the Madeiran capital of Funchal, told The Independent that she saw a giant cloud heading towards Britain at 3am on Tuesday morning as she stood on the balcony of her hotel suite overlooking the sea.
“I’ve never seen a black, charcoal mushroom cloud so enormous. It was tinged orange-pink and I thought it was the end of the world. It was really thick and enormous, like Hiroshima – it was terrifying.”
Back in Britain, people continued to feel the impact of the elevated pollution. The London Ambulance service reported a 14 per cent rise in calls for patients with respiratory issues as the city and much of the south east experienced the maximum level of 10 on the government’s air pollution index.
When pollution hits these levels people are advised to “reduce physical exertion, particularly outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as sore eyes, cough or sore throat”.
It's not clear from the report whether they mean foot and mouth disease (which afflicts animals, including livestock) or hand, foot and mouth disease (which afflicts humans). Either would be disastrous.