FARMINGTON – Dust storms that tear across highways or fill Navajo communities with airborne particles may be more than inconvenient or dangerous, a new study found.
Sand dunes are growing fast and becoming more mobile as the climate changes, according to a report from the United States Geological Survey. More than one-third of the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation is covered by sand dunes and sand sheets.
An increasingly dry climate in the area means some of the sand dunes are migrating at a rate of 115 feet per year, the report states. Faster migration of active sand dunes and the reactivation of previously immobile dunes can threaten housing, roads and health of residents.
U.S. Geological Survey scientists are researching the dunes to better understand dune growth and movement, and to provide data to residents.
The study also will yield data on diminished vegetation cover and the increasingly arid environment, which threatens livestock, grazing, infrastructure and livelihoods on the reservation. The areas that call for the most alarm are the lands near the Colorado Plateau, located near Flagstaff, Ariz., and surrounding the Hopi reservation.
But anyone who lives in the New Mexico portion of the reservation or who drives the U.S. 491 corridor during the spring knows the sand storms and dune movement also occur in the northern and eastern parts of the Navajo Nation.
Wind data for the Navajo Nation is recorded primarily at airports, said Sam McCown, a meteorologist for the National Climatic Data Center.
Stations with available data are the Four Corners Regional Airport in Farmington, Gallup Municipal Airport and the air strip in Window Rock, Ariz.
Similar wind speeds are reported in the Arizona and New Mexico portions of the reservation, according to National Climatic Data information. Average speeds across the two states are 7 or 8 mph, with highest wind speeds reported in March, April and May, at between 9 and 10 mph.
The wind direction, however, is very different. Wind blows predominantly northeast in Arizona, while it blows south in New Mexico.
Annual rainfall in the Arizona portion of the reservation is less than 3 inches, the Geological Survey report found. As a result, the extent of sand susceptible to mobilization has increased and sand and dust storms are increasingly commonplace during the spring.
If the trend continues, some officials warn that much of the Navajo Nation will become uninhabitable.
— This article appeared on page C2 of the Albuquerque Journal