What causes dust storms in Austria

Dusty weather : Sahara sand brings foreign microbes to Europe

In February and April 2014, desert storms blew vast amounts of Saharan dust over more than 2500 kilometers as far as Central Europe. In the Alps, the dust settled at heights between 2000 and 3000 meters and colored the snow. Austria alone was powdered with around two million tons of dust. Scientists from Italy and Austria have now found that many foreign bacteria and fungal spores came to Europe with the dust.

Dust as a carrier of bacteria

Tobias Weil's research team from the Edmund Mach Foundation examined a layer of reddish dust several centimeters thick that the storm had deposited in the Dolomites in February 2014. Almost all the microorganisms in the Sahara were found, says Weil.

Dust storms from Africa have long been known to researchers as a natural supplier of mineral fertilizers to the Amazon region in South America or the rainforests of the Caribbean. Microorganisms apparently travel with them. "They are extremely stress-resistant and have thick cell walls," says Weil. "When sand is deposited in summer, the cells are usually thinned again by precipitation, but in winter they accumulate in layers of ice and snow." This could displace native bacterial species - which could increase the health risk for humans, animals and plants. How real the danger is, however, would have to show further investigations, write the researchers in the journal "Microbiome".

Forecast: Increasingly dusty

The German Weather Service registers around 10 to 20 sand inputs from the Sahara to Germany each year. According to the United Nations, dust exports have increased by 25 to 50 percent in the past century due to increased farming and slash and burn on the continent.

(dpa / Matthias Röder)

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