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Saharan Dust Plume Slams U.S., Kicking Up Climate Questions

Saharan Dust Plume Slams U.S., Kicking Up Climate Questions

Whether these plumes—which can dampen hurricane activity and irritate lungs—will become more common with warming is unclear

An enormous dust cloud has finally hit the United States, after journeying 5,000 miles from the Sahara Desert across the Atlantic Ocean.

The plume darkened the skies in Puerto Rico earlier this week, causing some of the highest atmospheric aerosol concentrations the island had ever seen. By yesterday morning, the cloud had begun to creep over the Gulf Coast. Meteorologists say the hazy skies could last into the weekend.

This particular plume is among the most extreme on record, scientists have noted. The thickness of dust particles in the atmosphere is the highest observed in 25 years of satellite measurements. And its side effects are noticeable wherever it passes: hazy skies and brilliant sunsets, as well as potential respiratory irritation from all the extra dust in the air.
"It is an extremely unusual event," said Joseph Prospero, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Miami, whose research team helped pioneer the study of Saharan dust clouds more than 30 years ago.

In general, Saharan dust plumes actually happen all the time — the Sahara Desert has an endless supply of dust for winds to carry across the Atlantic Ocean. These events just aren't typically so intense.

There's some debate among scientists about whether these traveling dust clouds might be affected by future climate change.