“Godzilla” Saharan Dust Cloud Reaches U.S. Shores, Decreasing Air Quality in the South

The Godzilla Dust Cloud Over San Juan, Puerto Rico        Photo: Ada Monzón, Twitter

Satellite images show a thick dust plume that is more than 5000 miles long, which originates in the African Saraha Desert, has reached South Florida and is expected to have noticeable negative impacts on air quality across the Gulf states this weekend.  It could even blow north into the lower midwest, Ohio Valley, and Mid-Atlantic regions early next week.  Forecasters expect the states that are impacted will have skies that are hazy, with a milky appearance, and sunrises and sunsets could be more beautiful than usual as the dust scatters light from the sun.

Why This Matters:  A dust cloud this long is rare but it can be quite serious for people with lung conditions.  Many Caribbean islands have experienced dangerous air quality and forecasters are giving the same warnings now in Florida and other southern states. The cloud is definitely related to climate-induced dry and hot conditions, but scientists do not agree on whether there will be more or fewer of these in the future. They DO agree that these dust clouds suppress hurricanes due to their dry air, which is good news.  But that is only expected to last through July, and after that, the likelihood of hurricanes will increase again.

Health Effects of the Godzilla Plume

It seems as if another biblical plague is hitting us.  Scientists studying this plume believe it is the most significant one in the last fifty years — referring to it as Godzilla and a “whopper.”  Health experts also worry about the dust’s impacts on people battling respiratory symptoms tied to COVID-19. The dust concentrations in the Caribbean were so high that it could impact even healthy people.   NASA is apparently working to develop an alert system for the arrival of Saharan dust.

How Big Is It?

The Washington Post Capitol Weather Gang interviewed experts both in and outside of the government.  The dust storm originated with strong winds blowing out from thunderstorms over the Sahara that initially kicked up dust to an altitude of around 20,000 feet above the desert before it blew westward, out to sea on June 14, according to Jason Dunion, a hurricane researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  This type of dust storm happens every year off the coast of Africa and is known as the Saharan Air Layer (SAL), but this is a record-breaker.  The first really thick dust clouds reached the US territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on Monday, plunging visibility levels and making it hard for many to breathe.  Worse yet, there is another wave of dust (yes it has waves too) drifting toward the U.S. across the Atlantic this weekend. Professor Thomas Gill, of the University of Texas at El Paso, told The Post “this is among the most impressive such events observed and is especially noteworthy for its likely impacts on North America. ‘This one is, by all of the data and reports I’m seeing, one of the biggest and possibly the biggest and most expansive ever,’ Gill said.”

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