A British university professor claims four-wheel-drive vehicles are contributing to an increase in dust in the atmosphere, with potentially serious consequences for human health and climate change, according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper and other reports.

There has been a tenfold increase over the past 50 years in the quantity of dust being blown across the world from part of the southern Sahara, the single greatest source of the problem, which has been made worse by an effect labelled “Toyotarisation”.

Along with changes in land use such as deforestation and grazing, this is adding substantially to global dust emissions, estimated at 2,000-3,000 million tons a year, the reports said.

Large numbers are abandoning settlements in previously fertile areas of Africa, Andrew Goudie, a professor of geography at Oxford University, told the Daily Telegraph on Thursday.

Prof Goudie reportedly has measured the tenfold increase in dust production in the Bodele depression in Chad, the world’s main source of dust, by examining visibility measurements for the 50 years starting in 1947.

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The world urgently needed to wake up to the potential effects of the dust crisis on climate change and the spread of respiratory illnesses and allergies, he told the International Geographical Union congress in Glasgow.

“Dust is one of the least understood components of the Earth’s atmosphere. In deserts across the world formerly stable surfaces have been breached by the use of four-wheel-drive vehicles, especially in the southern Sahara and the Middle East.

“Add to this the dune buggy fiends in America and elsewhere and we have a significant cause of dust pollution.

“Dust is a problem of far greater severity than people realise. We could soon see the Dust Bowl disaster happening again. Wind erosion could become an increasing problem in Spain, Corsica and Sardinia. We could see dust storms becoming a serious problem around the Mediterranean.”

The Daily Telegraph said the process in some ways mirrors the causes of the Dust Bowl, the agricultural disaster that formed the backdrop for The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s tale of poverty and exodus during the Depression.

Reddish brown Saharan dust – known as “blood rain” – arrives in Britain and coats cars every year around March.

Several people die every year of “valley fever” on the west coast of the United States, a condition caused by spores carried by dust.

Organisms carried by dust from Africa are killing off coral reefs in the Caribbean.

The effects on climate change are uncertain but it is known that large quantities of dust in the atmosphere can slow the escape of heat rising from Earth, the paper added.