Q&A: How will the Saharan dust cloud impact the Lowcountry?

Weather Blog

This satellite photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, shows a could of dust coming from the Sahara desert arriving to the Caribbean Monday, June 22, 2020. The massive cloud of dust is blanketing the Caribbean as it heads to the U.S. with a size and concentration level that meteorologists say hasn’t been seen in roughly half a century. (NOAA via AP)

You’ve seen the social posts and pictures going around- but what does that dust mean and what will it look like when some it arrives to the Southeast this weekend?

What’s up with this dust storm?

Firstly, it’s not a dust storm- its actually just a big cloud of dusty, dry air. The dust or sandstorms that you’ve seen in the movies, called haboobs. Haboobs, Arabic for “blasting or drifting,” are intense walls of dust or sand blown around by strong winds ahead of decaying thunderstorms or cold fronts.

So it won’t have a face?

No. This isn’t “The Mummy.” It’s just 2020.

Aha! 2020 strikes again!

These events aren’t limited to this tumultuous year. Batches of dust consistently blow off the African coast from late spring to fall every year as the trade winds pick up. That being said, this event more pronounced than usual- bringing lowered visibility to areas within the plume, such as Puerto Rico.

I’ve seen the hazy pictures- what else is it doing?

The incredibly small dust particles that make up this Saharan Air Layer (SAL) does bring lower air quality where-ever it goes. These small particles hovering in this dry, dusty atmospheric layer will likely bring some redder sunsets and sunrise as it scatters more light than a normal, clearer day.

Is it going to be brown and dusty here then?

No. After traveling over 5,000 miles this SAL will start to become more diffuse upon its arrival here. We still might see some haziness in the afternoon, similar to what we see on those hot and humid days with afternoon proscribed burns. Both bring more particulates into the air around us, and both don’t cause us many problems.

When will it hit my house?

Again… it’s not a storm that will “hit” us. Its just a slight change in our atmospheric layer. Forecast models have portions of the plume arriving by Friday and lasting through the weekend.

Will I have to dust off my car and deck?

No. These dust particles are suspended high up in the atmosphere and will not accumulate on any surfaces. Any residue you see this weekend will be pollen- as it always is here in the Lowcountry.

So it’s nothing new and nothing to be concerned about?

Yep! In fact it’s helping us out as this Saharan Air Layer, made up of dusty, dry air, helps suppress tropical storm development in key formation zones in the Atlantic. The dust doesn’t do as much as the dry air and stronger winds higher up the atmosphere- which hurricanes really struggle to form in.

And we could see some great sunsets out of it!

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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