A “Godzilla dust cloud” from the Sahara Desert that’s heading toward the United States this week is the largest and most concentrated dust cloud of its kind in the past 50 years, according to news sources.
As of June 22, the dust cloud — which some experts have dubbed the “Godzilla dust cloud” — had reached the Caribbean, spiking air quality to “hazardous” levels, according to the AP. People along the Gulf Coast may be next to experience the dusty visitor.
Trade winds regularly carry dust clouds from the Sahara on a 5,000-mile (8,000 kilometers) journey across the Atlantic Ocean, but this particular formation “is an abnormally large dust cloud,” Dan Kottlowski, AccuWeather senior meteorologist and lead hurricane forecaster, told the weather website.
“One of the things I noticed from this is the dust started coming off the coast of Africa several days ago, in fact maybe over a week ago,” Kottlowski told AccuWeather. “And it’s still coming. It’s almost like a prolonged area of dust.”
The huge Saharan dust cloud formed June 13, when strong atmospheric updrafts over the Sahara were picked up by easterly winds, which blew the dust cloud west over the Atlantic, according to NASA.
Data collected by instruments aboard NASA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite show the dust cloud’s enormity. Colin Seftor, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, used that data to create an animation of the plume.
“This is the most significant event in the past 50 years,” Pablo Méndez-Lázaro, an environmental health specialist at the University of Puerto Rico, told the AP. “Conditions are dangerous in many Caribbean islands,” including in Antigua and Trinidad & Tobago, he said.
Dust from the Sahara plays an important role on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean; it builds beaches in the Caribbean and fertilizes soil in the Amazon rainforest during June, July and sometimes early August, according to NASA. The current cloud, however, is also affecting air quality, prompting health officials to tell people to stay indoors and use air filters, the AP reported.
Saharan dust can also suppress tropical storms. “It keeps a lid on the atmosphere and brings dry air into anything that may try to develop, which is very detrimental for tropical development which relies on warm, moist air,” Alan Reppert, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather told the site.
Even so, this cloud likely won’t affect the Atlantic hurricane season, which often peaks in August, September and October.
“Dust tends to be much less of a problem during the heart of the hurricane season,” Kottlowski told Acuweather.
To see a 10-day computer model forecast (as of June 22) of the dust cloud, check out this graphic tweeted by the National Weather Service.
The huge dust cloud will likely reach the Texas coast on Thursday (June 24) and cover the entire Gulf Coast by this weekend, Kottlowski said. The poor air quality this Saharan dust will bring could exacerbate the COVID-19 situation, according to an April study from the Netherlands. The study, published by the World Bank, suggests that areas with increased atmospheric particulate matter (that is, air pollution) have a higher incidence of the COVID-19 respiratory disease.
“The estimates suggest that expected COVID-19 cases increase by nearly 100% when pollution concentrations increase by 20%,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Originally published on Live Science.