The role of dust in climate changes today, at the last glacial maximum and in the future

Sandy P. Harrison*, Karen E. Kohfeld, Caroline Roelandt, Tanguy Claquin

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    370 Citations (Scopus)


    Natural mineral aerosol (dust) is an active component of the climate system and plays multiple roles in mediating physical and biogeochemical exchanges between the atmosphere, land surface and ocean. Changes in the amount of dust in the atmosphere are caused both by changes in climate (precipitation, wind strength, regional moisture balance) and changes in the extent of dust sources caused by either anthropogenic or climatically induced changes in vegetation cover. Models of the global dust cycle take into account the physical controls on dust deflation from prescribed sources areas (based largely on soil wetness and vegetation cover thresholds), dust transport within the atmosphere column, and dust deposition through sedimentation and scavenging by precipitation. These models successfully reproduce the first-order spatial and temporal patterns in atmospheric dust loading under modern conditions. Atmospheric dust loading was as much as an order-of-magnitude larger than today during the last glacial maximum (LGM). While the observed increase in emissions from northern Africa can be explained solely in terms of climate changes (colder, drier and windier glacial climates) increased emissions from other regions appear to have been largely a response to climatically induced changes in vegetation cover and hence in the extent of dust source areas. Model experiments suggest that the increased dust loading in tropical regions had an effect on radiative forcing comparable to that of low glacial CO2 levels. Changes in land-use are already increasing the dust loading of the atmosphere. However, simulations show that anthropogenically forced climate changes substantially reduce the extent and productivity of natural dust sources. Positive feedbacks initiated by a reduction of dust emissions from natural source areas on both radiative forcing and atmospheric CO2 could substantially mitigate the impacts of land-use changes, and need to be considered in climate change assessments.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)43-80
    Number of pages38
    JournalEarth-Science Reviews
    Issue number1-3
    Publication statusPublished - 2001


    • Biogeochemical cycles
    • Climates
    • Dust cycle
    • Dust modeling
    • Future climate changes
    • Land-surface conditions
    • Last Glacial Maximum
    • Radiative forcing


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