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Massive dust cloud heading toward U.S. may dim sky

By Brian Lada, Accuweather.com

Outbursts of Canadian wildfire smoke have filled the sky over the eastern United States in recent weeks, but a new airborne danger from a different source is approaching from the tropics.

AccuWeather meteorologists are tracking several large clouds of dust from Africa's Sahara Desert that are drifting over the Atlantic Ocean. The immense clouds have the potential to traverse the entire ocean and reduce air quality across the Caribbean and the southeastern United States in the coming days.

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The Saharan dust is so dense and widespread that it could be seen from space on Thursday. NOAA's GOES-EAST weather satellite spotted the first cloud of dust over the eastern Caribbean Sea and the Lesser Antilles, with an even bigger plume of dust emerging off the coast of Africa.

A satellite image of the tropical Atlantic Ocean on Thursday. A cloud of Saharan dust could be seen over the eastern Caribbean Sea, while another dust cloud was emerging off the coast of Africa. Image courtesy of NOAA/GOES-EAST
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"Saharan dust is common most years across parts of the Atlantic basin and sometimes spreads as far west as the Caribbean and Florida," said AccuWeather director of forecast operations Dan DePodwin. "The location and magnitude of the dust changes frequently throughout the season."

Forecasters warn that while the dust is not a particularly rare occurrence, it could still impact people across the Southeast in the coming days.

The cloud of dust over the Caribbean Sea is predicted to reach Florida by Saturday and could extend toward coastal areas of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama by Sunday. This initial wave of dust may not be as extreme as the Saharan dust that spread across the Southeast in June of 2020, which was so massive it was dubbed the Godzilla dust cloud, but the upcoming event could still impact air quality and make the sky appear opaque.

A dust-filled sky over Florida may also help to block out some sunlight to knock down temperatures by a few degrees compared to the heat during the first week of July. During the extended Independence Day weekend, temperatures across the state reached the mid- to upper 90s.

And the impending Saharan dust may be a preview of what's to come next week.

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A larger, more robust cloud of Saharan dust is being blown off the coast of Africa and will quickly cross the Atlantic Ocean. The dust is being carried by the trade winds that blow from east to west over the tropical Atlantic Ocean.

The thicker dust cloud is predicted to reach the eastern Caribbean by the end of the weekend and may approach Florida by Tuesday. If this forecast comes to fruition, it may cause air quality to worsen across Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and Florida.

During similar events in recent history, dust has collected on car windows and reduced visibility to a few miles.

People across the Gulf Coast who plan on spending extended time outdoors over the next week are encouraged to check the air quality forecast for their area due to the possible impacts of the dust.

While Saharan dust can affect everyone, there are groups that are more vulnerable to particulate pollution health effects than others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children and babies, older adults and people with underlying lung conditions or chronic cardiopulmonary diseases are among those outlined by the CDC.

Saharan dust particles can irritate the skin and eyes in addition to worsening asthma symptoms and other respiratory and cardiovascular symptoms and events.

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The widespread Saharan dust is putting a lid on tropical development across the Atlantic Ocean following a burst in activity in late June.

"Tropical waves, the origin of many tropical storms and hurricanes, thrive on a moist atmosphere," DePodwin said. "When Saharan dust is present, development of these waves can be impeded due to the atmosphere being drier than what is typical."

With the Saharan dust forecast to become even more widespread across the Atlantic hurricane basin into next week, and with disruptive winds blowing over the ocean, it is unlikely that another tropical system will spin up in the coming days.

Saharan dust will likely be just a temporary slowdown in tropical activity before the Atlantic hurricane season shifts into a higher gear.

AccuWeather meteorologists say that 11 to 15 named tropical systems will spin up in the Atlantic basin this season, right around the historical average of 14. Of the named storms, four to eight are forecast to become hurricanes, with two to four systems predicted to have a direct impact on the United States.

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