Saharan Air Layer may offer picturesque sunset, sunrise

Published on Saturday, June 27, 2020


A massive plume of Saharan dust particles has steadily moved across the Atlantic Ocean and into the southern most states of North America by way of the Gulf of Mexico.

Steve Wilkinson, the meteorologist in charge at the Greer National Weather Service station at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, said the phenomenon’s technical term is Saharan Air Layer.

The atmospheric patterns appear to indicate this phenomenon will not affect the Upstate, according to Wilkinson.

A Saharan air layer happens when dust from the Sahara desert occupies a 2 to 2.5-mile thick layer of the atmosphere with the base starting about one mile above the surface. It is blown west towards the Atlantic Ocean.

Starting in June and lasting until mid-August of every year, this process takes place every three to five days. Another large cloud is coming off the African continent, continuing to feed the long chain of dust traveling across the Atlantic.

This year, the dust cloud will reach further west than normal. “This particular one is impressive in its size and the amount of dry, dusty air it contains,” Wilkinson said. “It currently spans about 3,500 miles across the Atlantic, from (the) west coast of Africa to central America and some of it coming up into the Gulf Coast.”

In recent years, a Saharan air layer has not traveled as far west.

Wilkinson compared Saharan air layers to thunderstorms. Both are natural phenomena occurring regularly. But just as sometimes there will be an especially strong thunderstorm, so will there sometimes be a Saharan air layer of greater magnitude than normal.

The dust traveling across the ocean will impact visibility in the Caribbean and especially over the Atlantic. Inland, the dust will generally be found at around 5,000 to 20,000 feet and light reflected through the dust particles leads to the vibrant colors in the sky during sunsets and sunrises.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical and Experimental Immunology, this desert dust could exacerbate allergies and asthma symptoms. The American Asthma and Allergy Foundation recommended vulnerable people to take precautions and try to limit their time outdoors, where the air quality will be poor.

On a positive note, Wilkinson said this phenomenon will give the Atlantic Ocean a break from hurricane activity for a brief time. If a storm in formation moves into the area where the Saharan air layer is found, the dryness of the air mass will weaken and ultimately suppress the humid air mass of a storm.

• About the author. Gerson Petit is a senior English/Visual Studies double major at Bob Jones University. 



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