Response of dust emissions in southwestern North America to 21st century trends in climate, CO2 fertilization, and land use: implications for air quality

By Yang Li, Loretta J. Mickley and Jed O. Kaplan


Climate models predict a shift toward warmer and drier environments in southwestern North America. The consequences of such a shift for dust mobilization and dust concentration are unknown, but they could have large implications for human health, given the connections between dust inhalation and disease. Here we link a dynamic vegetation model (LPJ-LMfire) to a chemical transport model (GEOS-Chem) to assess the impacts of future changes in three factors – climate, CO2 fertilization, and land use practices – on vegetation in this region. From there, we investigate the impacts of changing vegetation on dust mobilization and assess the net effect on fine dust concentration (defined as dust particles less than 2.5 µm in diameter) on surface air quality. We find that surface temperatures in southwestern North America warm by 3.3 K and precipitation decreases by nearly 40 % by 2100 in the most extreme warming scenario (RCP8.5; RCP refers to Representative Concentration Pathway) in spring (March, April, and May) – the season of greatest dust emissions. Such conditions reveal an increased vulnerability to drought and vegetation die-off. Enhanced CO2 fertilization, however, offsets the modeled effects of warming temperatures and rainfall deficit on vegetation in some areas of the southwestern US. [Emphasis added.] Considering all three factors in the RCP8.5 scenario, dust concentrations decrease over Arizona and New Mexico in spring by the late 21st century due to greater CO2 fertilization and a more densely vegetated environment, which inhibits dust mobilization. Along Mexico’s northern border, dust concentrations increase as a result of the intensification of anthropogenic land use. In contrast, when CO2 fertilization is not considered in the RCP8.5 scenario, vegetation cover declines significantly across most of the domain by 2100, leading to widespread increases in fine dust concentrations, especially in southeastern New Mexico (up to ∼ 2.0 µg m−3 relative to the present day) and along the border between New Mexico and Mexico (up to ∼ 2.5 µg m−3). Our results have implications for human health, especially for the health of the indigenous people who make up a large percentage of the population in this region.

The full article appeared on the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics website at https://acp.copernicus.org/articles/21/57/2021/


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