While dust storms originating from the Southeast African desert of Shahara is nothing new, this year has definitely conveyed is full of surprises. Saharan dust storm — worst in half a century — has skipped the Atlantic and is currently chocking the U.S Gulf Coast.
The mammoth dust storm from Africa plumed over the Atlantic into the Caribbean sea, traveling thousands of kilometers. It has further drifted over the Gulf of Mexico finally entering the Mainland US.
Currently, Texas and Florida are the most affected regions of the US, and it is predicted to move upwards further, all the way to the Candian border over the weekend. Although the density will fall is it proceeds.
While till now most of the dust is suspended high on the atmosphere, out of human reach (about 15,000 to 20,000 feet up) the threat still remains as vertical mixing of gases and rainfall can bring the dust down, CNBC reports.
Inhaling airborne particles causes profound impacts on human health, especially on people with pulmonary diseases. According to reports, in the coming days, enough dust will descend that odds are people will see them settled on their cars.
NASA analysis of this year’s dust storm noted that the “absorbing aerosol index signal seen further north into Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, etc., is probably a mix of dust and smoke from the numerous fires burning in the southwest U.S.” For the uninitiated, the absorbing aerosol index (AAI) is a measure of the number of suspended particles in the air, like dust, ash, and so on.
Pablo Méndez Lázaro, from the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Public Health, told the Associated Press that the conditions are dangerous in some Caribbean islands. This year’s plume is so big, that it has earned the nickname Gorilla Dust cloud.
In the coming days, regions adjacent to Texas like the Tennessee valley and Carolinas could encounter conditions becoming worse and people are advised, well, the situation underscores the need to wear a face mask when outdoors.
The US has the most number of coronavirus cases in the world, with 2.54 million confirmed cases. Being a respiratory illness that spreads through respiratory droplets, the virus has already made people with underlying respiratory illnesses vulnerable. The dust storm could not have comes at a worse time, it turns out.
A recent Harvard study has found people with COVID-19 who are living in more polluted US cities are more likely to have adverse, even fatal consequences of coronavirus, than people living in lesser polluted cities of the US.
“There’s emerging evidence of potential interactions between air pollution and the risk of COVID, so at this stage, we are concerned,” professor of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health, Gregory Wellenius told Reuters.
Dr. Purvi Parikh, an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist at Allergy and Asthma Network noted that the dust can cause irritation and trigger allergic reactions in certain groups of people.
“Because of the irritant effect, for some people, it can make your eyes itchy, watery. It can cause nasal congestion, mucus and you can even have trouble breathing. That’s where You have to be careful. Things like coughing, wheezing, chest tightness,” Parikh said to CNBC’s WUSA9 network.
Dr. Parikh noted that owing to nationwide lockdown for a significant time the air quality was different. But the dust storms add another dimension to the fact, because “COVID 19 has respiratory spread and this dust storm has respiratory impacts as well.”
People are therefore advised to strictly avoid walking without mask outdoors and keep a check at the air quality in the affected regions.
On Thursday, number of COVID-19 cases increased in Arizona, weakening Texas’s resolve to reopen, which has been one of the strongest in the nation.
Reportedly 23% of the total tests conducted in Arizona has come positive last week. Mississippi’s health officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs warned, “It’s not a joke. Really bad things are going to happen.” A record of 415 patients was on ventilation in the southwestern U.S. state.
Texas was one of the first US states to reopen, but a rising number of cases in the past week has prompted Governor Greg Abbott to re-impose restrictions on business, including asking the bars to close and restaurants to operate at 50% of usual seating capacity. “Every Texan has a responsibility to themselves and their loved ones to wear a mask, wash their hands, stay six feet apart from others in public, and stay home if they can,” Gov. Abbott said in a statement.
The silver lining
While dust storm are hazardous to a certain class of people, more so as the COVID-19 is still raging, and both target the respiratory system, nonetheless it has some silver lining.
Dust in the atmosphere makes way for some especially vivid sunset. The typically hazy or milky skies of a dusty day is compensated by brilliant shows of colors during sunrise and sunset, thanks to the scattering properties of dust that reflect the sunlight dramatically.
The Sahara dust is thought to fertilize the Amazon rainforests and help build beaches in the Caribbean.
(Cover image courtesy of @tjoelchris via Twitter)