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Recently residents of Tamborine Mountain found themselves surrounded by a haze of dust, as winds carried huge quantities of dust from the country’s dry interior across the Eastern seaboard of Australia.

For dust storms to occur the ground must have fine, loose, dry particles of dust or soil and the weather conditions must feature strong dry surface winds and vertical turbulence. These conditions exist in arid or semi-arid regions. Although dust storms are a natural phenomena in dryland areas, their frequency and intensity are predicted to increase due to human activities. Deforestation, over-grazing, agriculture and development cause desertification, a process where topsoil is exposed and blown away creating a desert. The worldwide use of 4WD vehicles offroad in desert areas is beginning to contribute to this too. Many desert surfaces have been stabilised over thousands of years by a layer of lichen, algae or gravel when this protective layer is breached the soil is exposed.  

If a soil particle is not held by moisture, vegetation or soil structure, when the force of the wind passes over it, it will vibrate, then leap upwards. If the wind is moving quickly enough, the particle remains suspended in the air and is lifted higher, to altitudes of 3,000 metres, depending on the atmospheric stability above. Friction causes static electricity and this accelerates the process.

Dust storms have global environmental implications. It is now possible to track dust storms, a dust cloud from China went around the world in 13 days, the pathways and trajectories of dust storms can be diverse. Dust storms transport huge volumes of soil – in 2002 a major dust storm in Australia had a dust load of estimated at 4.8 million tonnes, and was depositing dust in the Tasman Sea at rate of approximately 75,000 tonnes of dust per hour.
Once in the atmosphere dust clouds can reflect and absorb radiation from the sun but their role in climate modelling is not yet fully understood.

The dust clouds contain a wide variety of materials – minerals, quartz, chemicals, pollen, soils, pollutants as well as microorganisms such as fungal spores, viruses and bacteria. There is a potential for pathogens to be transported and it is believed that microbes from dust blown from Africa has damaged coral reefs in the Carribean.

Dust storms are damaging, yet they can also be beneficial to the environment by redistributing nutrients such as iron and nitrogen to forests and oceans. They can also have a great impact on the amount of air particle concentration, in Sydney the rate of micrograms per cubic metre increased from the usual 20 to 15,400 during the dust storm.

The dust that blew across the East Coast was predominantly reddish due to its high iron content, but the colour of the haze varied from red, pink, orange, and yellow to grey. This is because the size and uniformity of the dust particles reflect and scatter the wavelengths of sunlight in complicated patterns

As the dust storm follows its pathway across the Tasman, some of the New Zealand snowfields will have a dusting of red added this year.

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Why does attentiveness to nature matter? In a very fundamental sense, we are what we pay attention to. Paying heed to beauty, grace, and everyday miracles promotes a sense of possibility and coherence that runs deeper and truer than the often illusory commercial, social "realities" advanced by mainstream contemporary culture. ... Our attention is precious, and what we choose to focus it on has enormous consequences. What we choose to look at, and to listen to--these choices change the world. As Thich Nhat Hanh has pointed out, we become the bad television programs that we watch. A society that expends its energies tracking the latest doings of the celebrity couple is fundamentally distinct from one that watches for the first arriving spring migrant birds, or takes a weekend to check out insects in a mountain stream, or looks inside flowers to admire the marvelous ingenuities involved in pollination. The former tends to drag culture down to its lowest commonalities; the latter can lift us up in a sense of unity with all life. The Way of Natural History, edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner and published by Trinity University Press (Texas)