Enormous Cloud of Dust From Africa's Sahara Appears to Be Heading for Texas, Louisiana and Florida

Satellite images show that a vast plume of Saharan dust is drifting westwards over the Atlantic—and meteorologists are predicting that it could reach the U.S. by next week.

According to Frank Billingsley, chief meteorologist at KPRC-TV, some of the dust could arrive in parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast, such as southern Texas, Louisiana and Florida, by next Wednesday—if not sooner.

This phenomenon is the result of tiny sand and mineral particles being swept up off the surface of the Sahara Desert by winds. These particles are then carried by updrafts into an extremely dry and hot air mass known as the Saharan Air Layer, which forms above the desert between late spring and early fall.

Strong winds frequently blow this dust-laden air layer—which extends between altitudes of 5,000 and 20,000 feet—westwards during this period of the year, transporting dust thousands of miles to the Caribbean, and U.S. Gulf Coast.

Every year, hundreds of millions of tons of this dust can be blown across the Atlantic, with transport peaking between June and July.

Because of its very low concentrations and the tiny size of the particles, many people on the ground will probably not even notice the effects of the dust when it arrives next week, apart from perhaps the hazy skies and particularly intense sunrises/sunsets that it sometimes causes.

However, those with respiratory problems, such as asthma and allergies, as well as the elderly and young children, can be especially sensitive to the dust—which can be inhaled into the lungs—and may experience some irritation after prolonged exposure. You should limit your time outside if you are concerned about your health in these circumstances.

Saharan Dust
A plume of Saharan dust can be seen moving over the eastern Atlantic Ocean on the morning of June 15 in this satellite image. National Hurricane Center's Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch

Studies have associated exposure to tiny particles in the atmosphere with respiratory disorders such as asthma, as well as some cardiovascular disorders and other health problems. However, research looking at the health impacts of Saharan dust specifically is relatively limited, and the evidence is still inconsistent as to what role it may play in the development of disease in humans.

Despite the potential health risks, the dust may also provide some significant benefits. Scientists think that the dry, dusty Saharan Air Layer may help to suppress the development of hurricanes and more minor tropical storms.

"Saharan dust changes the regional climate by reflecting and absorbing the sunlight, which decreases the sea surface temperature," Bowen Pan from Texas A&M University's Department of Atmospheric Sciences, previously told Newsweek. "[This] decreases the energy supply to the storms. Additionally, dust also stabilizes the atmosphere."

Some of the dust even reaches the Amazon region in South America where it helps to replenish nutrients in rainforest soils that are depleted by tropical rains.