A saharan dust storm in Florida? What is that all about!? Florida is known for being prone to crazy weather, especially during hurricane season. But most people think of hurricanes when they think of extreme weather in Florida. So it is no surprise that most Florida residents are not familiar with Saharan Dust or dust storms. But if you live or travel to Florida in the summer it is helpful to know what they are and what effects they have on Florida’s Gulf Coast. And that is exactly why we have created this guide. Our goal is to introduce what Saharan dust is and how it effects everything from air quality to hurricane activity in the Sunshine State.
Table of content (what we talk about in this article):
- What is a Saharan Dust Storm?
- When does saharan dust peak in Florida?
- What are the Health Effects of a Saharan Dust Storm on Florida residents?
- How You Can Track Saharan Dust Storm in Florida
- How Does Saharan Dust Impact Hurricanes in Florida?
What is a Saharan Dust Storm?
What is Saharan Dust and Where Does it Come From?
According to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention “Saharan dust is a type of particulate matter (PM) that originates in the Saharan Desert in Northern Africa.”
GeographyRealm defines it with more specifically as “a mixture of sand and dust particles” from the Saharan Desert.
The Miami Herald adds more detail, describing it as “an extremely dry, dusty air mass, containing about 50% less moisture than the typical tropical atmosphere”.
The dust travels in what is called a dust plume, which we give more information on below.
Why and How Does Saharan Dust Get to Florida?
7/10 – Saharan Dust and South Florida: Explainer Graphic🔎— NWS Miami (@NWSMiami) July 10, 2023
Brisk upper easterly level winds will continue to transport plumes of Saharan Dust across the northern Atlantic Ocean towards South Florida through next week. pic.twitter.com/7aw6KUnzLg
The big question that most people have is how Saharan dust makes its way all the way from the Saharan Desert to Florida? Well, according to the CDC, it is lifted into the air and transported thousands of miles thanks to high-winds present during storms like thunderstorms and cyclones.
And it is not just Florida that is affected. This dust phenomenon also affects certain Caribbean islands and well as Florida and Texas.
What is a dust plume?
𝗔𝗰𝗵𝗼𝗼!🤧 A stout plume of Saharan Dust is likely headed to Florida this weekend… pic.twitter.com/V4q2oN0Dt2— Nash Rhodes (@NashWX) July 5, 2023
If you read or hear about these storms in Florida you have most likely heard the term “Saharan dust plume”. The term gets used a lot, but it is not a common term. So we want to define it so you know what it is.
A plume is essentially a dust cloud or cloud of dust.
When does saharan dust peak in Florida?
According to the Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological Laboratory (NOAA) “Saharan Air Layer activity usually ramps up in mid-June, peaks from late June to mid-August, and begins to rapidly subside after mid-August.”
This means the Saharan Air Layer happens during Florida’s hurricane season, which runs from June 1st to November 30th of each year. As we will discuss below, Saharan dust has an effect on the development of Atlantic hurricanes.
What are the Health Effects of a Saharan Dust Storm on Florida residents?
Saharan dust does have negative health effects, especially for those with respiratory conditions and those effected by allergies. As a whole, the dust reduces air quality.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns “the particles can be breathed into your lungs and blood stream, potentially triggering asthma attacks in people who have asthma and aggravating other respiratory conditions.”
The National Weather Service (Miami) provided an in-depth answer of how Saharan Dust impacts air quality in a recent, 7/7/23 social media post, shown below.
7/7: A plume of Saharan Dust will arrive across our region late this weekend into the upcoming work-week. Strong upper-level winds carry these small sand particles originally from the Saharan Desert far across the Atlantic ocean. More info on how this affects air quality below! pic.twitter.com/jCY0WSfMWZ— NWS Miami (@NWSMiami) July 7, 2023
How You Can Track Saharan Dust Storm in Florida
There are several news sites and organizations that provide forecasts and updates on the Saharan Air Layer in South Florida.
The authoritative source for Saharan dust activity is the National Weather Service.
How Does Saharan Dust Impact Hurricanes in Florida?
Saharan dust affects South Florida in numerous ways. These impacts are wide ranging, from reduced air quality and respiratory irritation to visual affects (dust) and beautiful sunsets.
But it also effects our region’s weather. And perhaps the most meaningful effect it has on South Florida’s weather is it’s impact on hurricanes during the Atlantic hurricane season.
The big question is do these dust storms impact hurricane formation? And if so, do they help or hurt us?
Well, the good news is that Saharan dust actually helps reduce the formation and intensification of Atlantic hurricanes. There are several reasons for this, which we discuss in more detail below.
How does Saharan dust help reduce the formation and intensification of hurricanes?
First it is helpful to understand that Saharan dust storms are categorized by very warm and dry air. They also cause lower sunlight (due to dust blocking sunlight) and strong winds (called the African Easterly Jet).
It is also helpful to understand that hurricanes are formed due to moisture, warm water, and thunderstorms.
So why do the dust storms reduce the formation and intensification of hurricanes?
There are a few main reasons, which we discuss at a basic level below:
- The dust reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the ocean surface, which keeps ocean water temperatures cooler. As the dust plumes travel over the ocean it actually helps prevent waters in the Atlantic from becoming warmer. According to WeatherUnderground, the “dust can keep the sea surface temperature 1 degree C cooler than average in the Main Development Region (MDR) from the coast of African to the Caribbean, providing hurricanes with less energy to form and grow.”
- The dust layer is made up of drier air, which reduces moisture. This is a good thing as moisture helps in the creation of hurricanes
- The Saharan Air Layer inhibits the formation of thunderstorms. And according to the NOAA article on how hurricanes form, thunderstorms help to “fuel power-hungry hurricanes.”
You will remember above we stated that hurricanes are formed with the help of moisture, warm water, and thunderstorms. So the dust storms help to combat all three of these “hurricane fuels”.
As a result of these conditions, Saharan dust storms actually help to suppress the formation of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic.