A dust plume as big as the U.S and Europe is heading across the Atlantic Ocean toward the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding states. The annual event means hazy skies, possible poor air quality, and extra vibrant sunsets for those regions. It also affects tropical conditions where hurricanes form.
The dust started blowing off of the coast of Africa around June 13, according to NASA. By June 18 the giant dust plume had traveled 2,000 miles of its annual 5,000-mile journey through the atmosphere toward the Caribbean.
By June 22 the dust reached the Caribbean Sea and is expected to reach parts of the U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico this week, according to the Weather Channel.
Here is what you need to know about Saharah Dust:
1. Saharan Dust Will Reach the U.S. by the End of the Week
— Colin Seftor (@colin_seftor) June 20, 2020
Each year tiny dust particles are picked up by winds that carry them 5,000 miles west toward the Caribbean and the Americas. The phenomenon happens around the same time as hurricane season, from late spring to early fall. The Saharan Air Layer (SAL) consists of hundreds of millions of tons of dust that travel 5,000 to 20,000 feet above the earth’s surface, according to NASA.
The primary landing spot for the dust is in the Caribbean. “In effect, the Caribbean Basin can be thought of as the ‘receptor’ site of the Saharan dust, according to a paper published by the American Meteorological Society.
Ok, last dust pic for today and this one is perhaps the most incredible yet. The comparison photos were sent to me from Mirco Ferro who lives in St. Barthelemy. Check the dates in the photos (top is from March) – both are unfiltered or altered in any way. #SAL #DUST pic.twitter.com/FBwOG5ly1E
— Mark Sudduth (@hurricanetrack) June 21, 2020
But it doesn’t stop there. Severe Weather Europe reports that the dust plume will be in the Gulf of Mexico by Thursday and in parts of the south by the weekend. Texas and Louisiana are predicted to get the highest concentrations of the dust.
2. The Traveling Dust is Beneficial to Earth’s Biology But it Can Cause Breathing Problems for Some & Could Make Coronavirus Patients Worse
According to NASA, the Saharan “dust helps build beaches in the Caribbean and fertilizes soils in the Amazon. It can also affect air quality in North and South America.”
The fine dust particles are known to cause respiratory problems, sinus problems, eye irritation, and visual impairment due to lack of visibility. People with chronic issues like COPD, asthma, or lung disease are likely to be more susceptible to inhaling the dust, according to Texas Public Radio.
Dallas ENT reports that the dust can even exacerbate allergies for some because the foreign sand can trigger the immune system to react the same as it does during springtime allergies.
Dr. Anoop Nambiar, a pulmonologist at UT Health San Antonio told Texas Public Radio in 2018, “The patients who are going to be most susceptible are really going to be young children — I would also say older adults — but even more so, patients who have chronic problems like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and interstitial lung disease, which is also sometimes referred to as pulmonary fibrosis.”
However, Nambiar also said you don’t have to have an underlying condition for the dust to make you feel sick or lethargic or give you a runny nose and congestion.
He says if you think the dust is making you feel poorly, stay inside if possible. If you need to go out, he says wearing a mask could help.
“Stay indoors where the environment is cleaner and stay hydrated. Get enough rest — that typically could get you better. And if you have no choice but to be outside, I would recommend wearing a mask, at least having some sort of respiratory barrier to protect you somewhat,” Nambiar said.
Another concern is how it may affect people with COVID-19. According to Severe Weather Europe, “Fine dust particles can cause complications for individuals that have the Coronavirus infection if the dust is inhaled in higher concentrations. The dust concentration is not currently shown to reach very dangerous levels, but the latest forecasts have slowly increased the predicted dust amount over the United States.”
3. The Saharan Dust Storm Can Hamper Tropical Weather & Slow Down Hurricane Formation
According to the Weather Channel, the gigantic dust cloud can weaken tropical cyclones because its dry air can create downdrafts, or sinking air, and the strong winds associated with the SAL “make the environment hostile for tropical cyclone development.”
The Weather Channel says it’s not known if or what role the dust plays where hurricanes are concerned, but some theorize that it may have impacts on cloud formation.
The same theories come from NASA’s Earth Data. NASA researcher Jason Dunion said:
We think a dust storm has three main components that can suppress a hurricane. One, it’s got super-dry air. Hurricanes don’t like dry air in the middle parts of the atmosphere, and that’s exactly what the Saharan Air Layer has. A Saharan dust storm also has a very strong surge of air embedded within it, called the mid-level easterly jet, that can rip a storm apart that’s trying to develop. We call that vertical wind shear. And then the third piece is all this dust.
Another scientist at NASA Langley Research Center, Syed Ismail said, “We think that dust aerosols can affect tropical disturbances, sometimes even kill those disturbances. Dust inhibits convection, the process of moisture rising to the higher levels of the atmosphere, and then precipitating as rain. So these Saharan dust layers seem to have a blanketing influence on the development of convection.”
An Astronaut in the International Space Station Said They Can See the Huge Plume & You Can Watch It From Space Too
We flew over this Saharan dust plume today in the west central Atlantic. Amazing how large an area it covers! pic.twitter.com/JVGyo8LAXI
— Col. Doug Hurley (@Astro_Doug) June 21, 2020
The plume is huge, so it’s no wonder astronauts can see it from the International Space Station.
Astronaut Col. Doug Hurley tweeted a photo of the dust plume from space, saying, “We flew over this Saharan dust plume today in the west-central Atlantic. Amazing how large an area it covers!”
But anyone with internet access can track the view from space of the brownish mass of dust as it makes its slow crawl toward the Caribbean and the U.S.
Colorado State University’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, or CIRA, lets you watch the plume in real time as it floats off of Africa, over the Atlantic Ocean toward the West.
The Dust Causes Rich, Vibrant Sunsets & Sunrises —Here Is Why
An African Dust Storm to hit the US?? Sure why not…let's just pile it on to the weirdness of 2020! But hey look at the bright side the #Sunrise #sunsets are spectacular! WOW #duststorm #africanduststorm #SaharanDust #Sahara #crazy pic.twitter.com/ItSvy0lGEa
— Cris Winter (@criswinter997) June 22, 2020
According to Newsweek, the sun rays reflect off of the dust particles when the sun is low in the sky. With the Saharan dust being red and orange, the reflection will lead to bright, colorful sunsets and sunrises.
News Station WMC5 breaks it down further:
The light from the sun traveling to the Earth contains many different colors, each having different wavelengths. The color with the shortest wavelength is blue, and because it is the shortest wavelength it is absorbed by air molecules and scattered in every direction when the sun is directly overhead or at a slight angle causing us to see a blue sky.
As the sun sets lower in the sky the light must travel through more of the atmosphere, which in turn filters out the shorter wavelength light, such as blue, green, and purple. As it filters out the shorter wavelengths this allows the longer wavelength colors to reach the human eye, which are orange, pink, and red colors.
When smoke and dust are present in the upper atmosphere, the colors of the sunset are enhanced to look even deeper and darker in color. Tiny dust particles help to create more scattering in the upper atmosphere, which aids in creating especially vibrant sunsets.