Impacts of dust in our atmosphere


NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) teamed up to track the dusty Saharan Air Layer across the Atlantic during the 2006 hurricane season. On September 18, a NOAA P-3 Orion aircraft picked up its trail and captured this photo. (Courtesy Jason Dunion)

Over the past week there has been a lot of talk of the Saharan dust making its way to the United States.

Our GOES-16 (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite), has been able to clearly capture the brown-orangey tint over the blue seas of the Atlantic.

GOES-16 Satellite Visible Imagery taken June 24th, at 11:20 AM CT. Two plumes can be seen off the West coast of Africa and the primary plume over the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Dust in the atmosphere is not unusual, we actually have dust in the air all the time. Dust and dirt is actually what allows clouds to form. As water condenses in the air, it condenses onto the dust particles much like the condensation on the side of a pop can on a humid day!

Image courtesy of

In this case, what’s abnormal is the larger density of dust coming off of Africa. A few impacts this can cause on the ground is some air quality issues.
Which can cause some reactions for people with allergies and respiratory conditions. But here in the Iowa/Illinois the density seems to be much lower and shouldn’t cause too many issues.

Higher up in the atmosphere, dust actually causes the air to dry out. This explains why there is reduced cloud cover where plumes are present. This also keeps storms from having a good moisture supply, which is why deserts are much drier.

Along with drier air, higher up the wind speeds increase. This will help reduce the ability for hurricanes to form. Which is a good thing with an active start to the Atlantic hurricane season.

Depiction of how Rayleigh Scattering from dust will make the sunlight appear red.

Another interesting impact we could experience here in the Midwest, is the reddish tint we will see during the day. This occurs when the white light from the sun reaches earth, the dust in the atmosphere then absorbs all color wave lengths but red. Leaving us with a pretty sunset with vibrant reds and oranges.

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