London - The increasing popularity of off-road, four-wheel-drive vehicles is threatening to envelop the globe in a cloud of dust, with potentially severe effects on the environment, said a British scientist on Thursday.
The process - dubbed "Toyotarisation", after the Japanese vehicle maker Toyota - could have severe consequences for human health, coral reefs and climate change, said Andrew Goudie, a professor of geography at Oxford University.
"The number of four-wheel-drives now in the southwest United States and the Middle East is staggering," said Goudie, warning that the vehicles had a major impact on desert environments.
"They destabilise the desert surface. You can still see tracks from World War II vehicles in the Libyan desert," he told the International Geographical Congress in Glasgow, Scotland.
The rapid annual increase in dust production - parts of North Africa had seen a 10-fold rise in the past 50 years - coupled with the growing frequency of dust storms, brought a "magnitude" of environmental consequences, he said.
"Dust is one of the least-understood components of the Earth's atmosphere, but one which may have a greater importance than has been realised up until now for climate change," said Goudie.
About 2 000 to 3 000 million tons of dust were now emitted yearly.
Huge amounts of dust were dispersed through dust storms that sent it around the globe, meaning the environmental effects could be felt anywhere, he said.