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Florida braces for a dose of desert dust, are more 'Godzilla' dust plumes ahead?

Wednesday, June 16th 2021, 4:41 pm - 2020's 'Godzilla' dust event darkened skies and worsened air quality across much of North America and the Caribbean, but NASA research suggests plumes of trans-Atlantic Saharan dust may become rarer in the coming decades.

The so-called 'Godzilla' dust storm of June 2020 was a real monster. From its origins in the distant Sahara, the dust darkened the skies and degraded air quality throughout the Caribbean and as far inland as Kansas.

Now, forecasters are keeping an eye on another dust plume on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, that could bring hazy skies to at least Florida late week, lasting into Saturday.

This plume had its origins in the western Sahara earlier in the month, beginning on June 4th when it was observed exiting out to sea from Senegal and Gambia by the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. By June 7th, it was already over the mid-Atlantic en route to the Americas beyond.

Saharan dust is blown regularly across the Atlantic from Africa to the Caribbean and North America. The desert from which it originates sprawls across 9.2 million square kilometres – a little smaller than Canada – and some 60 million tonnes of the stuff is lifted into the atmosphere each year.

The phenomenon has several effects on our planet's climate, such as a well-documented suppressing impact on hurricane formation. It can also ferry beneficial nutrients for ocean and plant life, and help fertilize the Amazon. For humans, however, it can be harmful, as it brings down air quality near the surface.

Will this week's plume usher in another 'Godzilla' dust event? As it happens, recent NASA research suggests such plumes may be on the wane in the coming decades, which the agency attributes to a combination of natural processes and human activity.


As the climate warms, so do relative sea-surface temperatures between the North and South Atlantic, which NASA says leads to a weakening of the cross-Atlantic trade winds, which then transport less dust. With less of it in the air reflecting sunlight away from the ocean, the result is more ocean warming, further weakening winds and reducing atmospheric dust – a positive feedback loop NASA says will continue to impact climate, air quality, and hurricane formation.

In all, NASA expects at least a 30 per cent drop in Saharan dust activity over the next 20-50 years, and further declines beyond that time period.

“A decrease of dust as the climate warms may have profound influences on a variety of phenomena, but these potential impacts may be good or bad," Hongbin Yu, an atmospheric researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a release in April.

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