International air travel has plummeted as a result of COVID-19, so you probably aren’t going to Africa this summer. Not to worry. Africa, at least parts of it, has come here. The massive Saharan dust plume known as Godzilla didn’t need a jet for a transatlantic flight, just some east to west trade winds. And what Godzilla is bringing with it is nothing to sneeze at–tons of dust.
The Godzilla currently making news is no an ape; it’s a 3,500 mile long cloud of dust. It is a geographic giant. Godzilla stretches over a wide expanse in the United States from Florida west into Texas and north into North Carolina through Arkansas. The plume is so big that it can be seen from the International Space Station.
Godzilla’s dust does not come from under Africans’ beds but from the largest hot desert in world, the Sahara. Yes, there are cold deserts in the Arctic and the Antarctic. If you think Godzilla (the air plume) is huge, consider the Sahara which covers 31% of the continent of Africa. This desert, at 3,500,000 square miles, is comparable to the size of the U.S. or China and is blanketed with orange, sandy particles. That’s one gigantic sandbox!
Godzilla formed as a mass of dry dust over the Sahara Desert known as the Saharan Air Layer. This layer begins about one mile above the desert’s surface. It is composed of really dry air filled with dust particles. The dust is composed of tiny bits of minerals which used to be rock. I guess it is better to have a layer of dust hanging overhead than rocks.
Each year dust clouds roll from the Sahara carrying around 180 million tons of dust. These clouds could rack up sizable frequent flyer miles as they travel some 5,000 miles from North Africa across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and the United States. The air waves leave the western coast of Africa once every three days or so between June and November with late June to mid-August being the peak time for this air activity.
If these dust clouds are so common and regular, what’s the big fuss about Godzilla? The short answer is that there’s a big fuss because this particular cloud is big, as in immense. Satellite monitoring of these dust clouds began back in 1979. The Godzilla plume is the thickest and densest to cross the Atlantic since that satellite monitoring began about a half a century ago. How thick is thick? A typical Saharan Air Layer takes up a two MILE layer in the atmosphere. That would take a lot of dust busting to clean up!
Having Godzilla looming over the U.S. isn’t all bad. Dust scatters light, so the dust it has brought to the air produces some colorful sunsets and sunrises; deeper reds and oranges appear. Another plus is that the dry air mass transporting the dust can suppress tropical storm and hurricane formation. Dry air is not good for hurricane formation because such storms feed off of humid heat. Let’s starve those savage storms.
Dust plumes such as Godzilla can be surprisingly beneficial to the environment. The voluminous dust blown across the Atlantic helps to build beaches in the Caribbean. That dust also fertilizes soil in the Amazon because of the iron it contains which gives the Saharan dust its rich, red color. Thanks, but no thanks, Godzilla. I don’t need any more dust buildup in my house.
On the downside, a dust plume creates hazy skies and lower visibility. As a meteorologist from the National Weather Service explained, “It makes it look like it’s cloudy when it’s not really cloudy.” I guess I don’t have a scientific brain. If the dust is coming from a dust cloud, then isn’t it still “cloudy?”
Another negative for Godzilla is the baggage it brings on the trip. Particles in the dust cloud may spread viruses and carry pathogens from different regions. Anyone up for another pandemic? I thought not.
Approximately 30% of the dust coming from the Sahara is “fine.” That description relates to size and not appearance. According to the National Geographic website, by the time Saharan dust makes it to the Caribbean it is so fine that it is less than 10 microns across. I have no idea what size a micron is, but I’m guessing it is itty bitty since it has “micro” in its name.
A smaller particle is a big health problem because smaller particles can penetrate deeper into the lungs. Breathing in fine particles is not good for the lungs. This scenario could worsen the symptoms of asthma. And, of course, those with respiratory problems are more at risk for COVID-19, the Godzilla of health problems here in 2020. The air quality in the Caribbean reached hazardous levels when Godzilla arrived. The traveling air plume was not a breath of fresh air.
The current calendar year has been filled with crazy events such as a pandemic and monument toppling. The Godzilla dust plume is merely one more item to add to the things which occurred during this wacky year. In the future when people look back on 2020, dusty history will be literal and not figurative.
Were you aware that Saharan dust plumes are a yearly and regular occurrence? Have you observed any signs of the Godzilla dust plume? If you have, what were they? Would you want to travel to the Sahara Desert if you had the opportunity?