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Weather 101: What is the Saharan Dust Layer?

What is the Saharan dust plume and how it will affect you
Posted at 3:33 AM, Jun 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-25 12:50:47-04

CINCINNATI — It's the buzz on social media. Saharan dust is taking over the United States this week and it's coming to the Ohio Valley.

Take a deep breath. It's really not a big deal.

The Saharan Dust Layer has visited us many times before without making headlines, but in true form in 2020, it's apparently a huge headline. Here's what you need to know about this and what you won't see.

1. What you won't see

Have you heard of a haboob? It's a dust storm that is typically seen in the desert southwest. A huge cloud of dust moves along the ground, dropping visibility, covering everything and bringing life to a halt. It's a big deal.

Well this is not what we'll see. If you are hoping to actually see a cloud of dust moving in this weekend, you will be greatly disappointed.

2. What you will see

One of the obvious signs of dust in the atmosphere actually isn't dust but what it does to our sunlight. The tiny dust particles high in the atmosphere refract light coming in, intensifying our sunrises and sunsets. The particle size specifically intensifies the red and orange hues. So get your cameras ready.

3. Negative impacts

Any additional particulates in the atmosphere can lead to respiratory issues, so those with asthma or chronic lung illnesses might notice some irritation this weekend. If that's the case for you, wearing a mask will help, or you could just stay inside.

The Saharan Dust Layer is normally something that is monitored for tropical forecasting. The layer of dust limits tropical development or can lead to a hurricane weakening. We can actively monitor its position through water vapor satellite imagery. It can even be forecast in weather models, as you are seeing on social media this week.

As the name implies, it's air that originates from the Saharan Desert in Africa. The hot, dry and often dusty air moves off the west coast of Africa and over the Atlantic Ocean. This less dense air is then lifted up above the marine layer. The air closer to the ocean surface is lower in temperature and more dense due to moisture in it. This lofted dust then travels thousands of miles high up in the atmosphere and into the Caribbean and, sometimes, the United States.

Basically, dust invisible to the eye will be here this weekend. You do not need to change your plans because of it. You will not have photos of dust to show people. But you might be able to sit on the back deck and enjoy a nice sunset!