Sunrise light on a grove of tufa towers emerging from the water of Mono Lake with soft green and dusty-red wild grasses in the foreground, Canada geese in the shallow water with reflections of the rocky towers, and desert hills in the distance.

We are all connected: Dust from the Gobi Desert found in the Sierra Nevada

Aerial view of Gobi Desert dust traveling over China west toward California. Photo courtesy of NASA.

This post was written by Alexis Helgeson, 2018 Mono Lake Intern.

The Sierra Nevada is such a high and rocky mountain range that one might wonder how trees like Jeffrey pines and giant sequoias are able to grow. Dust collected in Yosemite National Park contains nutrients such as phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, which are not typically found in areas where there is a lot of granite rock. In work published last year, researchers reported that phosphorous and other nutrients travel to the Sierra Nevada via dust carried in the jet stream.

A team from UC Riverside and UC Merced conducted a study in Yosemite Valley to establish where the dust and minerals originated. After analyzing the dust they concluded that the nutrients originated from the Gobi Desert in China (dust pictured above), with up to 45% of the dust at the highest elevation in Yosemite originating in Asia (Serna).

The amount of dust brought to California via the jet stream is expected to increase as climate change creates more desert conditions around the world (UC Riverside), which could mean that more dust will settle in the Sierra Nevada. There have also been reports that some of the dust carries pollutants that affect the ozone layer above North America (Chappell). As the UC Riverside article summarizes, “Quantifying the importance of dust, which is sensitive to changes in climate and land use, is crucial for predicting how ecosystems will respond to global warming.”

It is clear that we are truly connected to one another on a global scale. Next time you go for a walk among the Jeffrey pines or the sequoias, take a moment to think about how long those trees have been there and the dust that traveled hundreds of miles to help them grow.

Chappell, Bill. Smog in Western U.S. Starts Out As Pollution In Asia, Researchers Say. National Public Radio. Mar 3, 2017.
Serna, Joseph. China’s Gobi Desert feeds Yosemite National Park’s forest, study says. Los Angeles Times. Aug 2, 2017.
UC Riverside. Asian dust providing key nutrients for California’s giant sequoias. EurekAlert! Mar 28, 2017.