Research project

Atacama Desert Dust Emission Research (ADDER): Resolving aeolian dust source dynamics

Project overview

Understanding when, where, and how windblown dust is emitted from deserts is important because dust can be detrimental to human health, can pollute downwind environmental systems, and, when airborne, can influence climate. Desert dust can also be rich in iron and other nutrients so when it falls into oceans downwind of its desert source, it can stimulate the productivity of marine biota in the surface waters. The impact of this is especially important in certain sensitive coastal areas where the mixing of cold water occurs close to the shore, such as at the Atacama and Namib Desert coastlines. These coastal waters can be particularly receptive to the nutrients that deposited dust might be providing.

The UK Team have undertaken research on windblown dust in southern African deserts for many years. Our approach has been to use satellite observations to identify the sources of dust in different areas of the desert landscape, and then install state-of-the-art monitoring and survey equipment in these ‘hot-spots’ of dust emission to measure the wind and surface characteristics that control how and when dust is eroded by the wind. Our data have allowed improvements to be made in models of windblown dust emission into the atmosphere, and have also shown the significance of deposited dust in the fertilisation of the South Atlantic Ocean.

The Atacama Desert is similar in many interesting respects to the Namib Desert in southern Africa. Both deserts are located on continental west coasts, fringed by cold ocean currents to the west and steep topography to the east. They have similar types of landscapes with a mix of dry river valleys, stony plains, and salty dry lakes. In the Namib, such surfaces have been shown to be prone to wind erosion and the generation of dust storms. However, whilst we know that winds generate dust in the Atacama Desert, we know very little about when and where such storms occur, or whether the dust contains iron which might affect the nutrient levels in the adjacent ocean waters. Our aim is to start a new collaboration of scientists from Chile, the UK, and Namibia to begin to answer these questions and determine the impacts of and controls on windblown dust in the Atacama Desert. We wish to achieve an understanding of the relevant processes in the Atacama which is as good as that which we have gained in the Namib.

This research will bring together researchers from the UK and Namibia who have expertise in identifying sites of dust erosion (termed emission ‘hot-spots’) in Namibia, and a Chilean researcher who has expertise on the Atacama wind erosion system. Together this new team will establish, for the first time and at high resolution, where dust in the region comes from (using satellite images to identify ‘hot-spots’), and how frequently dust storms occur. The team will then undertake fieldwork to explore the surface ground conditions at these ‘hot-spots’ and, at specific sites, install instruments to directly measure the amount of dust that is being eroded.

Based on the outputs from this project, the team will develop a long-term collaborative relationship that will explore the effects of dust in the Atacama region in more detail through additional grant proposals. This will include investigating the influence of climate cycles on the efficiency of wind erosion, how important dust in this region is for ocean productivity, and the significance of human impact, such as mining, on generating windblown dust.


Lead researcher

Dr Jo Nield

Associate Professor

Research interests

  • Dune Processes
  • Salt pan dynamics
  • Dust emissive surfaces
Connect with Jo

Collaborating research institutes, centres and groups

Research outputs