Experts worry high levels of dust could worsen the impact of Covid-19
A plume of dust from the Sahara, nicknamed the “Godzilla Dust Cloud” because of its monstrous size, has made its way across the Atlantic Ocean. After blanketing the Caribbean, it is now lumbering toward the southeastern United States. Although summer dust plumes are not uncommon in the region, this one stands out due to its size and density.
“This is the most significant event in the past 50 years. Conditions are dangerous in many Caribbean islands,” Pablo Méndez Lázaro, an environmental health specialist at the University of Puerto Rico told the Associated Press.
These plumes of dust are picked up from the Sahara by strong gusts of wind and ferried across the Atlantic by the trade winds—a belt of west-moving air currents near the equator that emerges during the summer months. Typically, these dust masses become diluted by the time they hit the Caribbean. However, this particular plume is still going strong and has already shrouded Puerto Rico in a thick haze.
Studies show that airborne dust particles have significant implications for health, particularly pulmonary disease. Dust is known to be especially dangerous for people with pre-existing breathing conditions such as asthma, but this plume is so dense that it could threaten healthy people too. Air quality in Puerto Rico dropped to “hazardous” levels, prompting health experts to warn people to stay indoors and wear masks. As the plume approaches Florida and Texas—in both of which Covid-19 cases are soaring—health officials worry that the effects of the plume can make the pandemic even worse.
One small upside is that the dust plume has the potential to temper storms during the upcoming hurricane season. Sometimes called “hurricane killers,” these concentrations of dense, dry dust stifle the moisture that is needed to sustain the hurricane. On the other hand, studies suggest that the dust may actually contribute to consistently rising atmospheric temperatures.
Photo by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration