Sahara dust storm reaches U.S. mainland in ‘the most significant event in the past 50 years’

descriptive image of sahara dust storm

Before and after photos are seen of Antigua who faced poor air quality from a Sahara dust storm. Screenshot / @268Weather

A Sahara dust storm has traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and is currently covering parts of the U.S. mainland.

The plume of dust is worsening air quality, leading to increased respiratory risks in the middle of a pandemic. The Saharan dust storm reached Puerto Rico on Sunday and has since covered parts of Mexico and Cuba.

The Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique are suffering the worst. The storm is expected to continue reaching parts of the U.S. this weekend, including Texas who is already suffering from an increase in COVID-19 cases. It will bring about in some cases less than a half-mile of poor visibility, according to CBS news.

The Sahara dust storm began in West Africa.

When the Sahara dust storm began in West Africa, people witnessed day turn into night, according to AccuWeather.

“They were scared, ” Gregory Jenkins, Penn State University professor who holds a doctorate in meteorology told AccuWeather in a Zoom interview. Jenkins typically receives calls from friends in Senegal and other parts of Africa who lean on him for information.

“I’ve been caught in those (dust storms) before and it — there’s nothing good about being there except you feel afraid,” Jenkins said. “You don’t know what’s happening and the sky looks dark. You can’t tell. It’s like, is this like a squall line of thunderstorms coming up, and then the wind just lifts up so quickly. Everything’s blowing at you, and it just goes dark.”

This is the most concentrated Sahara dust storm over the Caribbean in 50 years.

It is not uncommon for plumes of African dust to reach the Caribbean. The current event, however, is the most concentrated in the last half-century. It is the largest since tracking began in 2002, according to CBSN.

Some experts have dubbed this event the “Godzilla dust cloud” as areas in the Caribbean see “hazardous” air quality.

“This is the most significant event in the past 50 years,” Pablo Méndez Lázaro, an environmental health specialist with the University of Puerto Rico, said according to Science X. “Conditions are dangerous in many Caribbean islands.”

The climate crisis affects Saharan dust storms to some degree.

Harvard points to a groundbreaking November 2019 study that shows the climate crisis will create more intense dust storms in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

Using what Harvard calls the highest-resolution continuous climate record ever published, the study explains the links between dust storms, extended drought periods, volcanoes, and a warming planet.

These “ultra-high-resolution records” revealed that during warming periods, stronger Saharan dust storms in the past give way to what one can expect in the future. The more intense the storm, the greater the effect is of darkening glaciers. The darker the glaciers are, the more they absorb heat. Where there is more dust in the air, air quality will lesson, more public health risks arise, and the frequency of North Atlantic hurricanes will increase.

That being said, meteorologist and CBS News climate and weather contributor Jeff Berardelli says the climate crisis is likely not related to this Sahara dust storm.

He points to a study that says dust may decrease in the future because climate change will weaken tropical wind. “Dust is good for the Atlantic in that it stops hurricanes from forming or it weakens them if they are out there,” he said.

Yale Environment 360 explains further:

On the other side of the world, weather patterns in some regions have shifted in a different way. Rainfall in the Sahara has increased because of warmer ocean temperatures, which has meant less dust blowing westward across the Atlantic Ocean. Dust storms have also declined in the deserts of China and South America and are projected to be lower in the Great Plains of the U.S. — all because of an increase in precipitation that stimulates plant growth, which caps the soil.

Sahara dust is good for the Planet.

While the Sahara dust storm is lessening air quality in the Caribbean and Southeastern U.S., it plays a role in Earth’s natural ecosystem.

The dust helped build beaches in the Caribbean, it helps fertilize the Amazon rainforest, and it provides mineral nutrients for phytoplankton in the Ocean.

As Berardelli explains, Saharan dust can reduce the severity of hurricanes. It can prevent storms from potentially getting stronger. Typically, hurricane seasons that have a large number of Saharan dust storms see a lower amount of storms develop, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As the dust plume continues to settle over the U.S., here’s what it looks like so far:

USA Today on Friday shared several tweets to provide visceral images of what the Sahara dust plume looks like as it settles onto the U.S. mainland.

Here they are:

This article was produced in partnership with Earth Day Network. In a democracy, every voice matters. Click here to pledge to vote on environmental progress in 2020.

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