Saharan dust plume drifting toward US darkens Caribbean skies

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(NEXSTAR/AP) — Dust is on the way to the U.S. this week, making the more than 6,000-mile journey from the Sahara Desert.

This might seem to work against typical weather patterns, but dust comes to the U.S. from the Sahara every year. While the Saharan dust journey happens annually, we should see more than usual in 2020.

Tiny individual dust particles combine to make a large plume so big that it can be picked up on satellite images, and even be seen from the International Space Station.

The massive plume darkened the sky over parts of the Caribbean this past weekend and should reach the southeast U.S. by Wednesday of this week.

Air quality across most of the Caribbean fell to record “hazardous” levels and experts who nicknamed the event the “Godzilla dust cloud” warned people to stay indoors and use air filters if they have one.

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

Many health specialists were concerned about those battling respiratory symptoms tied to COVID-19. Lázaro, who is working with NASA to develop an alert system for the arrival of Sahara dust, said the concentration was so high in recent days that it could even have adverse effects on healthy people.

Sunsets

The massive dust storm will make for some eye-popping sunsets.

The colors that we see at sunrise and sunset are created by light scattering. The scattered sunlight is enhanced by water particles or pollutants, like dust, in the atmosphere.

When more dust is present, there are more particles in the atmosphere to refract light, presenting more bright shades of red, orange, yellow, and pink.

Air quality

While we are expecting to see some extra vivid sunrises and sunsets, it might be healthier for some people to admire them from inside.

Since dust is moving in, naturally it will lower air quality to potentially irritate eyes, noses, and throats. Children and older adults can be especially susceptible to negative side effects, along with anyone with preexisting conditions linked to heart disease, lung disease, allergies, or asthma.

Take precautions like staying inside if you have a condition that would be worsened from the extra pollutants and particles in the air.

Storms and tropical weather

Dust does not kill the development of storms like hurricanes, but does suppress it. With the dust comes dry air that counteracts moisture needed to fuel a storm.

This impacts local storms and makes it hard for tropical storms to grow and develop into hurricanes as the desert winds cross the Atlantic. Still, the already busy 2020 hurricane season will likely be very active after this break.

The dustiest time of year for this phenomenon can last through June and July. While the Saharan dust may slow storms, it probably will not have a lasting impact, since hurricane season spikes once the dust clears in the fall.


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