Giant dust storm from Africa's Sahara Desert set to arrive in the US and temporarily suppress hurricane season

The Saharan dust is so thick coming off western Africa that it looks like the desert continues over the ocean in places, an expert said


                            Giant dust storm from Africa's Sahara Desert set to arrive in the US and temporarily suppress hurricane season
(Getty Images)

A giant storm of dust and sand from Africa's Sahara is heading towards the Gulf of Mexico, according to satellite images. Tracking its movement, meteorologists predict that it might travel over 5,000 miles to make its way into the US in a week. And this holds good news as it might temporarily give Americans a break from the hurricane season.

Describing the incoming storm, Dr Dan Lindsey, a program scientist at the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, tweeted: "The #Saharandust is so thick coming off western Africa, it looks like the desert continues over the ocean in places!" According to Frank Billingsley, Chief Meteorologist at KPRC-TV (NBC), the storm is likely to reach by June 24. "The dry, dusty air keeps tropical storms from forming. The next five days at least, and quite possibly the rest of the month, remain quiet," he wrote in his blog.

On the flip side, it could cause minor problems for people with allergies and other respiratory problems.  "You can’t really 'see' it as the dust is usually pretty fine by the time it gets here, but itchy eyes, noses, and throats are all possible if you are sensitive to it. So be prepared," Billingsley added.

What are dust storms?

Strong winds pick up dust from the surface and carry it elsewhere. They typically have their origins in the Middle-East and North Africa but can form in the US as well. CNN's meteorologist Haley Brink said that these large plumes from Sahara routinely track into the Atlantic Ocean from late spring into early fall.  Under the right conditions, they can travel thousands of miles across the Atlantic and into the US, she added.

This NASA satellite image shows a dust storm, hundreds of thousands of square miles in size, moving from the Saharan Air Layer over Africa into the eastern Atlantic Ocean (Courtesy NASA MODIS Rapid Response Team)

When it travels the distance and crosses the ocean, the dust particles high up in the atmosphere can scatter sunlight and create some of the most vivid sunsets," Brink told CNN. However, dust storms could cause problems during air travel. It reduces visibility for pilots, causing delays and cancellations. It can also lead to car accidents if people are caught off guard.

There is more. One study suggested that the Saharan dust clouds dropped iron off the West Florida coast, leading to algal blooms.  This toxic growth can kill numbers of fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. Even humans swimming in these waters could develop skin and respiratory problems.

How Sahara's dust storm affects hurricanes

 Scientists think the dry air in the Saharan storm plays some role in suppressing hurricanes. There are other factors too. According to Jason Dunion, a research meteorologist from the NOAA Hurricane Research Division in Miami, "It has a very strong surge of air embedded within it, called the mid-level easterly jet, that can rip a storm apart that’s trying to develop. We call that vertical wind shear. And then the third piece is all this dust," he said in a statement.

Bowen Pan from Texas A&M University's Department of Atmospheric Sciences, previously told Newsweek: "Saharan dust changes the regional climate by reflecting and absorbing the sunlight, which decreases the sea surface temperature. [This] decreases the energy supply to the storms. Additionally, dust also stabilizes the atmosphere."

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