Sahara Dust Storm Hits Gulf States: Where Is It Now, Where Is It Going?

A vast plume of Saharan dust has now made its way into the United States, covering large swathes of the Gulf Coast region.

A significant concentration of the dust is now floating in the atmosphere above much of the southeastern U.S., including eastern Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. It also covers large portions of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and Central America, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system.

The latest forecast models indicate that some areas of the dust plume, which extends around 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, will push northeastward over the next couple of days, Bob Oravec, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in College Park, Maryland, told Newsweek.

Some thinner sections of the plume could even make it as far north as as the Great Lakes region by the end of the week, the forecast models suggest. Meanwhile the thickest parts of the plume will mostly remain over the southeastern U.S.

Over the weekend, this dense area will linger mainly over Alabama, Georgia and Florida, before it begins to dissipate at the start of next week. But just as this is happening, another vast concentration of the dust plume, which is currently located in the middle of the Atlantic, will also be making its way across the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico.

While this concentration will likely not be as thick as the one that is currently affecting the United States, Oravec said it could also reach the Gulf Coast midway through next week.

According to Oravec, the biggest effects from the dust in affected areas will be reduced visibility—sometimes by up to several miles—and hazy, milky skies. There is also the chance of more vivid sunrises and sunset as the particles in the atmosphere refract sunlight. Although when concentrations are too high, the dust can have the opposite effect, making these spectacles appear less intense.

Saharan dust, San Juan, Puerto Rico
A vast cloud of Sahara dust is blanketing the city of San Juan, Puerto Rico on June 22, 2020. RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images

The dust will also likely cause reductions in air quality across large areas of the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency's Air Now monitoring map shows that many of areas of the of the Gulf Coast are experiencing yellow or orange warnings—the latter meaning air quality is unhealthy for sensitive groups.

The dust can pose a health risk for those with respiratory issues, such as asthma and allergies, because it can exacerbate the symptoms of these conditions.

Trade winds blow dust from the Sahara westwards over the Atlantic every year between late June and mid-August, however, the plume that now stretches across the ocean is extreme in terms of its geographic extent and thickness in some areas.

"The ongoing Saharan dust outbreak across the tropical Atlantic is by far the most extreme of the MODIS satellite record—our most detailed, continuous record of global dust back to 2002," atmospheric scientist Michael Lowry tweeted.