Since the beginning of April 2022, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East have been hit by a series of severe dust storms. Two major storms in the past two weeks have sent thousands of people to the hospital, as poor air quality from airborne dust can aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases.
The skies above Baghdad, Najaf, Sulaimaniyah, and other cities turned orange as visibility dropped to a few hundred meters. Several airports were closed during the dust events, and schools were closed nationwide. Government offices were shuttered in seven of the Iraq’s 18 provinces, and several governors declared states of emergency.
The natural-color images on this page were acquired with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. The image above was captured by Aqua MODIS on May 16, 2022; the image below comes from Terra MODIS on May 5.
Dust storms in Iraq are most common in late spring and summer, provoked by seasonal winds such as the “shamal” that blows in from the northwest. Researchers suggested in a 2016 paper that La Niña conditions in the equatorial Pacific can lead to an earlier onset of shamal winds. Recent observations suggest that La Niña may be persisting into a third consecutive year.
Those strong seasonal winds blow across abundant sources of dust. According to The World Bank, northern Iraq—between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—has the highest density of dust sources in the Middle East.
News media reported that Iraq has been hit by at least eight dust storms in the past six weeks. Researchers have found that dust events have become more frequent in Iraq. The country has been facing drought conditions in recent years, as well as land-use changes and overuse that mean there is more loose soil available to be lofted into the atmosphere. The World Bank cited Iraq as one of the countries most vulnerable to desertification and climate change.
NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Michael Carlowicz.