Haze from Russia wildfires reaches Southcentral Alaska

Posted: Thursday, April 24, 2008

ANCHORAGE - The haze that crept into Alaska in the last few days, making Anchorage appear more like Los Angeles on a smog-filled day, is not what you might think. It is smoke and dust from Russia.

Bob Martinson / The Associated Press
Bob Martinson / The Associated Press

The smoke is coming from Russian wildfires, and the dust is from sandstorms in Mongolia's Gobi Desert. Satellite images prove it, showing a whitish-yellow haze stretching east from China and Russia into Southcentral Alaska.

Gerry Guay, manager of the state's Air Monitoring and Quality Assurance Program, said the haze has covered a fairly extensive area, going from Fairbanks to Kodiak, and from Valdez to the Aleutian Islands.

"It's one of the biggest clouds of dust I've seen on the satellite images in a while," Guay said. "It covered a fairly extensive area."

Sand storms in the Gobi Desert are common this time of year, but the storms are particularly bad this spring, said Catherine Cahill, a researcher with the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

Local dust kicked up by vehicles or construction can contribute to low-altitude air problems, but it generally doesn't rise enough to obscure mountains, Guay said. For that to happen, high winds are needed to fling dust into the air.

Those strong winds arise during sand storms in the Gobi Desert that often assault neighboring areas with drifting grit dubbed Kosa, meaning "yellow sand," by the Japanese, whose islands it frequently crosses, Cahill said.

Such storms are common through April and May, and the dust routinely reaches Alaska and beyond, she said.

"Pretty much every spring, we get a huge amount of dust from the Gobi Desert. Some years we get more dust than others. This is definitely a worse year," Cahill said.

But not the worst in recent years. The spring of 2001 was the fourth-dustiest on record in Asia, with dust particles drifting across the entire U.S. and even into Greenland, Cahill said.

The Itar-Tass news agency reported this week that more than 100 forest fires were burning in four regions of Russia. The massive fires got started last week.

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