Geography of Saharan Dust: Where and How Does it Travel? (2023)

The Sahara Desert is a vast expanse of sand and barren rocky areas that occupies much of northern Africa. It is renowned for its incredibly harsh environment, which includes extreme temperatures, near-constant sunshine and a lack of water.

It is perhaps less known for being a huge generator of atmospheric dust, which is transported in enormous quantities from the Sahara and deposited up to a few thousand miles away, carried by large winds that blow over an incredibly long distance. However, how much Saharan dust is produced and transported around the world is currently threatened, due to predicted impacts from climate change.

Saharan Dust on the Move

During the summer months, plumes of Saharan dust are blown from the African continent, often occurring a few days apart from each other.

Geography of Saharan Dust: Where and How Does it Travel? (1)

The dust consists of fine dust particles, found in hollows or on desert flats that, on rare occasions, hold water which then dries out, leaving behind silt and other fine sediments. Dust particles are rarely derived from sand dunes, as these are too heavy and require very strong winds to loft them and keep them in the air for an extended period of time.

After being picked up by the wind, much of the dust travels over an incredibly long distance – the small size of the particles means that they are rather light, and can therefore remain suspended above the Earth’s surface for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles.

Strong wind currents also keep the particles suspended over such distances, with a great example being the north-easterly trade winds, which blow from the Sahara toward the Americas. The dust particles are usually transported at a height of between one and three miles above the surface of the globe, meaning that they can freely travel for a long distance without settling, and without any interference from many natural landscape features. Only large-scale mountain ranges can disrupt the airflow at such a height.

(Video) How Continent-Sized Dust Storms Form

Saharan Dust Plumes

Saharan dust plumes are often sent westward across the Atlantic Ocean, regularly reaching (and often settling) over the Americas, although some of the dust travels even further afield.

Although a significant portion of the particles settle in the tropical Atlantic to the east of Central America, the prevailing north-easterly trade winds typically blow the dust toward the northern half of South America, Central America and the Caribbean.

Geography of Saharan Dust: Where and How Does it Travel? (2)

A large percentage of the dust settles over these areas, and when it does, it is rather noticeable, with large-scale reductions in visibility occurring temporarily. For example, the leading edge of a dust plume blew over Puerto Rico in June 2020, after being carried for 5,000 miles. Some of the plume settled on the island, but the rest of it was blown toward North America.

Dust plumes do not always blow toward the west – some plumes carry the particles northward, toward Europe. In February 2021, two large plumes carried dust across much of Europe, coating the Alps in murky beige-colored skies, and even reaching as far north as Scandinavia.

Geography of Saharan Dust: Where and How Does it Travel? (3)

Aerosol Atmospheric Rivers

Dust plumes that travel far distances can often be carried by atmospheric rivers. Research recently published in the journal Atmospheric Research found that 78% of atmospheric rivers over northwestern Africaresulted in extreme dust transport events in Europe.

(Video) How African Dust Feeds Florida's Crops

These dust-laden storms have been given the name“aerosol atmospheric rivers”.

Most recently on March 15, 2022, Storm Celia resulted in a plume of dust from North Africa that traveled to Europe, blanketing the region with sand.

Geography of Saharan Dust: Where and How Does it Travel? (4)

How Much Saharan Dust is Transported?

Around 180 million tons of Saharan dust are transported across the Atlantic each year. Just one strong wind event running across part of the Sahara can loft a few million tons of dust into the air, which can make up a large portion of a single plume.

Geography of Saharan Dust: Where and How Does it Travel? (5)

Large quantities of dust are deposited in areas far away from their origin. A study by the American Geophysical Union (Yu et al., 2015) found that – based on an eight-year average – 102, 20 and 28 tons of dust were deposited into the tropical Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Amazon Rainforest respectively. This demonstrates the sheer amount of dust that is transported away from the Sahara, with large amounts being deposited in each region.

How Climate Change Will Affect Saharan Dust Plumes?

Scientific studies strongly suggest that climate change will restrict the rate and extent of Saharan dust plumes.

(Video) The Sahara: Earth’s Greatest Desert

A 2021 study by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) used a combination of computer modelling and satellite data to predict the extent of future dust plumes. They concluded that, over the next century, Saharan dust plumes will reduce to a 20,000-year low.

This is concerning as dust particles are rather high in nutrients; they contain large amounts of iron and phosphorus. A portion of these nutrients are deposited onto the Amazon Rainforest, which keeps the soil rich in natural fertilizer and helps its plants and trees to thrive. As the Amazon is one of the Earth’s largest carbon sinks, and sequesters vast amounts of carbon each year, a reduction in vegetation is quite alarming in terms of mitigating climate change.

Furthermore, if global temperatures increase, the sea surface temperature of the Atlantic increases with it, which is predicted to slow the easterly winds, meaning that less dust will be able to reach the Amazon. This therefore sets up a feedback mechanism, where less dust reaching the Amazon results in higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and the cycle continues even further.

How Northern African Rainfall Patterns Can Affect Saharan Dust Plumes

A change in northern African rainfall patterns could also limit the amount of Saharan dust plumes. Weakened easterly winds, located over the Sahel region and the southern edge of the Sahara, mean that rainfall bands located to the north of the Equator will be able to extend further north into the Sahara, compared with the rainfall patterns of today.

This will have the effect of dampening the ground, thereby reducing the rate at which dust dries, and limiting how much dust can be lofted into the air. This is another factor that prevents large dust quantities from reaching the Amazon Rainforest.

In addition, the light-brown color of atmospheric dust means that, during plumes, sunlight is reflected from the Earth’s surface. On the contrary, the dark blue color of the ocean absorbs heat from the Sun – therefore, a reduction in plumes means that more heat is absorbed, thus increasing the temperature of both the sea surface and the atmosphere.

References

Chakraborty, S., Guan, B., Waliser, D. E., da Silva, A. M., Uluatam, S., & Hess, P. (2021). Extending the Atmospheric River Concept to Aerosols: Climate and Air Quality Impacts.Geophysical Research Letters,48(9), e2020GL091827. https://doi.org/10.1029/2020GL091827

(Video) Scientists Terrifying New Discovery Under Sahara Desert Changes Everything!

Francis, D., Fonseca, R., Nelli, N., Bozkurt, D., Picard, G., & Guan, B. (2022). Atmospheric rivers drive exceptional Saharan dust transport towards Europe.Atmospheric Research,266, 105959. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosres.2021.105959

Streiff,L. (2021, April 19).NASA study predicts less saharan dust in future winds. NASA.https://www.nasa.gov/feature/esnt/2021/nasa-study-predicts-less-saharan-dust-in-future-winds

Voiland,A. (2016, February 25).Saharan dust sweeps over the Iberian Peninsula. NASA Earth Observatory.https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/87566/saharan-dust-sweeps-over-the-iberian-peninsula

Voiland,A. (2018, June 30).Here comes the saharan dust. NASA Earth Observatory.https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/92358/here-comes-the-saharan-dust

Yu, H., Chin, M., Yuan, T., Bian, H., Remer, L. A., Prospero, J. M., … & Zhao, C. (2015, December). Saharan Dust Fertilizing Atlantic Ocean and Amazon Rainforest via Long-range Transport and Deposition: A Perspective from Multiyear Satellite Measurements. InAGU Fall Meeting Abstracts(Vol. 2015, pp. EP42A-05). https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2015AGUFMEP42A..05Y/abstract

This article was originally written on September 1, 2021 by Julian Marks and contains updates by Caitlin Dempsey.

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FAQs

Where does Sahara dust travel? ›

That dusty airmass can climb to heights of 60,000 feet at times, helping to complete the over 3,000-mile journey across the Atlantic basin towards the North American continent. The dusty air will settle across the Caribbean, Cuba, and the Gulf Coast of the United States.

How does Saharan dust travel? ›

Subsequently, in summer, the wind shifts westward, which transports Saharan Dust toward the Atlantic Ocean. The atmospheric layer in this region is the Saharan Air Layer, which is typically dry and hot during this season. This wind brings Sahara Dust to South America and continues to the Amazon Basin.

Where does the dust from Africa travel to? ›

Dust storms in the summer tend to loft material higher into the atmosphere, allowing plumes to travel thousands of kilometers on high-level winds. Those summer seasonal wind patterns can carry the dust from Africa to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

How does Sahara dust travel to the Caribbean? ›

As strong winds move downward and outward from these thunderstorms, the wind kicks up dust as it moves across parts of the Saharan Desert and transports it into the upper atmosphere. This dust then moves across the Atlantic Ocean and affects the Caribbean, parts of Central America, and the Southern United States.

How is dust transported? ›

Once released from the surface, dust particles are raised to higher levels of the troposphere by turbulent mixing and convective updrafts. They can then be transported by winds for lengths of time, depending on their size and meteorological conditions, before being pulled back down to the surface again.

Why does Saharan dust happen? ›

(WMC) -Big dust storms develop in Africa due to strong thunderstorms. Winds in the Atlantic are able to carry these large dust storms across the Atlantic and toward the US. The trade winds can carry these large dust storms for many miles. These large dust clouds are referred to as “SAL” (Saharan Air Layer).

Where is the dust coming from? ›

Indoor dust originates from pet dander, hair, cooking, bedding, clothing and in-home work projects. Outdoor dust is typically carried by dirty air that manages to find its way inside your home via sources such as leaky air ducts, open windows and small exterior cracks.

How often do we get Saharan dust? ›

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Saharan Air Layer, or large area of very dry, dusty air, forms over the Sahara Desert during the late spring, summer and even early fall, moving into the tropical Atlantic Ocean. This can happen as often as every three to five days.

Where is the Sahara desert located? ›

The Sahara Desert is the world's largest hot desert and the third largest desert behind Antarctica and the Arctic. Located in North Africa, it covers large sections of the continent - covering 9,200,000 square kilometers which is comparable to the are of China or the US!

Is the Sahara dust still around? ›

But the Sahara dust plumes are common — some 182 million tons of dust blow across the Atlantic each year — and they play an important role in Earth's climate system. As they travel through the air, the dust particles both absorb and reflect sunlight.

Does Sahara dust affect airplanes? ›

It can clog your air filter so the engine shuts down. Yes, you can then pull the carb heat (or alternate air for injected engines) to get the engine running again (at least for a while to land), but now you're throwing sand into the engine, and that ain't good for your engine's' innards in the long run.

How long does Saharan dust last? ›

Saharan Air Layer outbreaks usually occupy a 2 to 2.5-mile-thick layer of the atmosphere with the base starting about 1 mile above the surface. Saharan Air Layer activity usually ramps up in mid-June, peaks from late June to mid-August, and begins to rapidly subside after mid-August.

How often does Saharan sand travel around the world? ›

How Much Saharan Dust is Transported? Around 180 million tons of Saharan dust are transported across the Atlantic each year. Just one strong wind event running across part of the Sahara can loft a few million tons of dust into the air, which can make up a large portion of a single plume.

How long will Saharan dust last in Texas? ›

The dust cloud typically arrives in Texas between mid-June and August and lasts for 3-5 days.

What is the Saharan dust cloud called? ›

Also called the Saharan Air Layer (SAL) by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Saharan dust is a mass of very dry, dusty air that forms over the Sahara Desert during the late spring, summer and early fall.

How far does dust travel? ›

Although very small particles in suspension create their own problems, dust particles are what make most storms so hazardous. Dust can be lifted more than 700 meters (2,296 feet) into the air [source: United Nations].

How fast does dust travel? ›

As an example the settling velocity of a 0.2 cm or 2 mm particle is about 73 m/s. This particle may be blown by the wind, but it will not blow very far unless the winds are constantly above about 100 kph or 62 mph.

How does Saharan dust affect humans? ›

The Saharan dust cloud covering the air in parts of Texas has the potential to cause problems for people with asthma, allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

What is Saharan dust made of? ›

Saharan dust is a mixture of sand and dust from the Sahara, the vast desert area that covers most of North Africa.

What is the effect of the Sahara dust? ›

The Saharan Air Layer is considered to have a moderating effect for tropical cyclones in the Atlantic. On the other hand, as particles favour cloud formation, Saharan dust transports can also increase precipitation under certain conditions. This is also still an active area of research.

Why is my car covered in sand? ›

"The fine particles of sand get caught in rain droplets in clouds, falling to the ground when it rains. When the water evaporates, a thin layer of dust is left on surfaces, like cars as we have seen, not just in Scotland but across much of the UK and Europe too.

How does dust get into the air? ›

Dust is made of fine particles of solid matter. On Earth, it generally consists of particles in the atmosphere that come from various sources such as soil lifted by wind (an aeolian process), volcanic eruptions, and pollution.

Why is my bedroom so dusty? ›

The bedroom, for example, has a tendency to generate dust from the bedding fibers, dust mites, and skin cells. If a room has carpet and other upholstered furniture, dust levels increase even more.”

Where does dust come from outside? ›

Dust from outside your home

About two-thirds of household dust comes from outdoors. Garden soil and road dust gets tracked in on your shoes or blown in on windy days. Outdoor dust particles get in on the hairs of your pets. Vehicle exhaust dust also gets inside.

Can Sahara dust cause cough? ›

Many of the symptoms are similar such as coughing, wheezing, chest congestion and flu-like body aches.

What is under the Sahara desert sand? ›

Beneath the sands of the Sahara Desert scientists have discovered evidence of a prehistoric megalake. Formed some 250,000 years ago when the Nile River pushed through a low channel near Wadi Tushka, it flooded the eastern Sahara, creating a lake that at its highest level covered more than 42,000 square miles.

Is Saharan dust good for plants? ›

In this scenario, Saharan dust can provide essential macronutrients and micronutrients to plant roots, and also directly to plant leaves.

Where does the Sahara desert start and end? ›

It stretches from the Red Sea in the east and the Mediterranean in the north to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, where the landscape gradually changes from desert to coastal plains.

When was Sahara formed? ›

Some claim the desert formed within the past few thousand years while others suggest a longer history, with the Sahara forming in the Pliocene between 5.3 and 2.6 million years ago.

What can I take for Saharan dust? ›

For less severe symptoms, standard allergy medications such as antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays might be helpful. If you are experiencing a sore throat and runny nose and are unsure whether it is COVID-19, get tested.

Is Sahara dust over Florida? ›

This dust does indeed come from the Saharan desert in north Africa. It travels by upper-level winds across the Atlantic and pushes northwestward into Florida. This is the first major plume of dust to affect the state this season, and Saharan dust is typical in months of July and August in this area.

How much of the Sahara desert is sand? ›

Sand sheets and dunes cover approximately 25 percent of the Sahara's surface.

Can a plane fly through a sand storm? ›

Dust storms pose a significant hazard for aviation. Not only do they drastically reduce visibility, they also are associated with very strong winds that can seriously affect an aircraft in flight.

Can planes fly in sand storm? ›

Smaller and lighter particles will be lifted more readily and to greater heights, and take longer to settle out, while the larger particles may remain airborne only for short distances of a few hundred metres. Drastic reductions in visibility are likely to accompany dust and sandstorms.

Can a jet fly through a sandstorm? ›

Can airplanes handle a sandstorm? Typically sandstorms are low altitude weather and so all airliners and most General Aviation (GA) aircraft will fly ABOVE the sand.

Does Sahara dust prevent hurricanes? ›

According to NOAA, the Saharan dust plume has been shown to suppress tropical storm and hurricane formation and intensification in the Atlantic. The dusty air is very dry, with about 50% less moisture than the typical tropical atmosphere.

Why is the Sahara so large? ›

The results suggest that human-caused climate change, as well as natural climate cycles, caused the desert's expansion. The geographic pattern of expansion varied from season to season, with the largest differences along the Sahara's northern and southern boundaries.

Where does the Sahara desert end? ›

It is bounded in the east by the Red Sea and it stretches west to the Atlantic Ocean. To the north, the Sahara Desert's northern boundary is the Mediterranean Sea, while in the south it ends at the Sahel, an area where the desert landscape transforms into a semi-arid tropical savanna.

How does Sahara sand get to Europe? ›

The strong winds from Storm Celia off the northwest coast of Africa picked up dust from the Sahara desert and lofted it into the atmosphere. The southerly winds then pushed the dust northward into Europe, creating haunting scenes across the region.

Was the Sahara desert an ocean? ›

The Sahara Desert was once underwater, in contrast to its present-day arid environment. This dramatic difference over time is recorded in the rock and fossil record of West Africa. The region was bisected by a shallow saltwater body during a time of high global sea level.

How much dust from the Sahara falls on the Amazon every year? ›

In an average year, 20 million tonnes of Saharan dust is dumped on the Amazon basin, quite literally washed out of the sky by rain. Around 20,000 tonnes of this is phosphorous — the same amount that is washed out of the Amazon basin by floodwaters each year. So, dust.

Does Saharan dust cause headaches? ›

Saharan dust settling out of the atmosphere onto a car. "We see an uptick in patients coming in with respiratory symptoms: cough, congestion, post nasal drip, itchy eyes, sneezing, sometimes some facial pressure, headaches," said Kaplan. "That can even, in some people, trigger bronchitis and asthma."

Can a dust storm make you sick? ›

Prolonged exposure to airborne dust can lead to chronic breathing and lung problems, and possibly heart disease.

Why is it so dusty in Texas? ›

Violent thunderstorms in the desert toss dust into the mid-levels of the atmosphere. This allows the Saharan dust to be carried by the easterly trade winds from the western African coastline all the way across the Atlantic.

What countries are affected by Sahara dust? ›

The dust in question has origins across central Africa, between Mali, Chad, Algeria and Sudan. Farther to the south, the dry desert of Africa transitions into a band of lush verdure. Part of it is even classified as rainforest.

How long does Sahara dust last? ›

Saharan Air Layer outbreaks usually occupy a 2 to 2.5-mile-thick layer of the atmosphere with the base starting about 1 mile above the surface. Saharan Air Layer activity usually ramps up in mid-June, peaks from late June to mid-August, and begins to rapidly subside after mid-August.

How does African dust get to Texas? ›

What is Saharan Dust? It's a dust cloud that forms every year due to storms in the African Sahel region, which borders the Sahara desert. The trade winds then send plumes of that dust across the Atlantic and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Where does the Sahara desert end? ›

It is bounded in the east by the Red Sea and it stretches west to the Atlantic Ocean. To the north, the Sahara Desert's northern boundary is the Mediterranean Sea, while in the south it ends at the Sahel, an area where the desert landscape transforms into a semi-arid tropical savanna.

What symptoms does Saharan dust cause? ›

The Saharan dust cloud covering the air in parts of Texas has the potential to cause problems for people with asthma, allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

What color is Saharan dust? ›

Saharan Dust Plumes

This image showing the enormous light brown cloud of Saharan dust over the North Atlantic Ocean was acquired by NASA-Suomi NOAA's NPP satellite on June 18, 2020.

Is there Sahara dust in the air? ›

An estimated 60-200 million tons of dust particles are carried from the Sahara Desert region of North Africa, where it originates, and moves westward annually.

What is Saharan dust made of? ›

Saharan dust is a mixture of sand and dust from the Sahara, the vast desert area that covers most of North Africa.

How often do we get Saharan dust? ›

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Saharan Air Layer, or large area of very dry, dusty air, forms over the Sahara Desert during the late spring, summer and even early fall, moving into the tropical Atlantic Ocean. This can happen as often as every three to five days.

What can I take for Saharan dust? ›

For less severe symptoms, standard allergy medications such as antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays might be helpful. If you are experiencing a sore throat and runny nose and are unsure whether it is COVID-19, get tested.

Why is the sky so hazy in Austin today? ›

This is what we call a "temperature inversion." The warmer air aloft can trap ground-level ozone and other pollutants near the surface, creating the hazy conditions like we have today.

Which country has Sahara? ›

The Sahara desert covers 10 different countries — they are Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia.

Where does Sahara Desert located? ›

The Sahara Desert is the world's largest hot desert and the third largest desert behind Antarctica and the Arctic. Located in North Africa, it covers large sections of the continent - covering 9,200,000 square kilometers which is comparable to the are of China or the US!

Where does the Sahara desert start and end? ›

It stretches from the Red Sea in the east and the Mediterranean in the north to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, where the landscape gradually changes from desert to coastal plains.

How do you protect yourself from Sahara dust? ›

The following tips can help reduce the effects of the Saharan dust: Keep windows and doors closed when indoors. Wear a dust mask when necessary. Drink lots of water and fluids.

Does Saharan dust have a smell? ›

The gray haze also has brought a particular smell, like stepping into a wood shop.

What in my house is making me sneeze? ›

The most common indoor allergens include dust, cockroaches, mold, and cats and dogs. These allergens often lead to postnasal drip, runny nose, nasal congestion, headache, sneezing, itchy, watery eyes, itchy skin, fatigue, and for some people, even difficulty breathing as well as wheezing.

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