NASA is mapping out dust storms on Earth with a device called EMIT, which could be an important tool in efforts to understand and mitigate the effects of global warming.

Located on the International Space Station, EMIT detects what kinds of dust are in certain regions of the globe. Different types of dust affect the planet in different ways, and NASA aims to explore those effects using EMIT.

Dust can either warm or cool the Earth, often depending on the color of the minerals. Red and darker dust typically absorbs sunlight, producing a heating effect. More lightly colored dust reflects sunlight, creating a cooling effect. Color depends on what the dust is made up of, like iron in dark dust and clay in light dust.

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EMIT is an imaging spectrometer, meaning it measures the visible and infrared wavelengths reflecting off the dust, thereby determining its color. Its view is 39 miles wide and it orbits the Earth 16 times a day.

Dust is not all bad; in fact, many ecosystems rely on it, according to climate scientist Diana Francis, per CNN. The problem arises when there is too much of it.

Climate change and land use have fueled a 25%-50% increase in dust emissions over the past century, according to the United Nations. Darker dust mimics greenhouse gasses by trapping heat in the atmosphere, contributing to the positive feedback loop of climate change.

NASA reports a knowledge gap when it comes to the composition of dust storms, which take such a toll on the environment. That’s why it launched EMIT in July 2022.

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Natalie Mahowald, a climate scientist at Cornell University who worked on the project, told CNN that EMIT could be revolutionary. “It’s just going to provide such amazing new data to help us understand the surface and the atmosphere,” she said.

The device maps dust storms — it can also track methane pollution. Although methane doesn’t last as long as carbon dioxide does in the atmosphere, it has over 80 times the warming power within the first 20 years of emittance, says the Environmental Defense Fund.

Because methane reflects infrared radiation in a unique pattern called a “spectral fingerprint,” NASA has been able to use EMIT to find over 50 “super-emitters” of methane.

Methane’s short residence time of about 10 years, as opposed to carbon dioxide’s centuries, means clearing it from the atmosphere would yield quicker results when it comes to diminishing climate change.

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