Saharan dust sweeping the nation: How did it get here?
File this under "things you probably haven't seen before but aren't surprised about because it's 2020."
A large dust plume from the Sahara Desert has made the more than 5,000-mile journey from Africa to the U.S. mainland this past week, making stops over the Caribbean along the way.
Believe it or not, these summer "dust-ups" are somewhat of a common occurrence. Dust from the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa gets swept up into the atmosphere and travels west via the upper-level trade winds that become stronger during the summer months. This has happened many times before, and much of the soil across the southeastern U.S. and Caribbean Islands is composed of African dust which has settled over millions of years!
Sometimes the plume can push northward and get caught in the North American jet stream, which can deliver this atmospheric visitor to our neck of the woods.
This particular plume just happens to be one of the largest in recent memory, and has grabbed national headlines. Many before-and-after photos have been posted all over the internet, juxtaposing crystal-clear skies in the days leading up to the dust alongside hazy images from during the event. Besides the obvious visibility issues that come with the plume, the dust has been thick enough to prompt some health officials to issue advisories. In bad cases, breathing difficulties could arise, especially for those with pre-existing respiratory ailments. With many Southern states experiencing dramatic spikes in COVID-19, this is definitely not what the doctor ordered.
Saharan dust clouds are not all bad though. In addition to inhibiting tropical storm development along 'Hurricane Alley' in the Atlantic Ocean, it has been known to produce some of the prettiest sunrises and sunsets imaginable, due to the refraction of sunlight off the dust particles.
Whether or not the dust will have a significant impact on the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season will depend on the longevity of subsequent rounds of plumes, as Hurricane Alley doesn't really get going until July and August. Forecasters are indeed tracking a second big plume behind the initial one that will arrive over the next few days.