Godzilla Dust Storm Causing Dangerous Pollution in the United States

Intensified health problems in Texas and Florida

The record-setting dust cloud from the Sahara Desert that has been nicknamed, “The Godzilla Dust Storm” has traversed the Atlantic Ocean and is now depositing a cloud of dust over parts of Texas and the Gulf Coast.

PM2.5 and PM10 pollution on June 25th-28th, 2020. Source: EPA

The Sahara Air Layer (SAL), as it is called by NOAA, is common during the summer months and some years can cover the lower 48 states. This particular cloud is one of the most widespread, intense, and dense dust cloud events observed in recent decades since they were first measured in 2002. This cloud will cause dangerous air pollution for a while and a second cloud is predicted to move into the U.S. in July.

Particulates in the Lungs

What is it? It’s a mass of warm, dry air, and strong winds composed of fine “PM2.5” and “PM10” particulate pollution. PM2.5, which are particles less than 2.5 microns or 0.0001 inches in diameter, and PM10, which are particles less than 10 microns in diameter, comprise the enormous cloud.

PM2.5 sized particles are able to travel deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Exposure to fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath. For reference, 90 percent of wood smoke particles are smaller than one micron.

Unfortunately, the dust does more than just irritate the lungs of healthy people. Since air pollution aggravates coronavirus symptoms, Jeff Masters at Yale says it has likely led to increases in hospitalizations from the disease in regions where dust concentrations have spiked. According to Masters, a PM2.5 episode as widespread and severe as this one, even without the pandemic, could cause at least hundreds of premature deaths.

But not only COVID-19 patients are affected by air pollution. Apparently, human-caused outdoor air pollution from PM2.5 and ozone causes 5.5 million premature deaths around the world each year.

Air Pollution Linked to Premature Deaths

Using epidemiological studies, researchers can correlate death rates with air pollution levels. Air pollution has been proven to increase the incidence of deaths from strokes, heart attacks, and lung disease. Since causes of death also result from other factors including lifestyle and family history, they are usually referred to as premature deaths.

Duststorm Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

Premature air pollution-related death typically shortens a lifespan by about 12 years, according to Caiazzo et al.. A 2018 study done by the EPA and auto industry-funded Health Effects Institute, concluded that PM2.5 pollution in the U.S. caused approximately 87,000 premature deaths per year between 2010 and 2016.

A Silver Lining in the Cloud

The good news is, as the Saharan dust cloud crossed the Atlantic Ocean, it acted as a sunlight shield, depressing water temperatures .4 degrees. According to the Hurricane Research Division at NOAA, the dust storm can suppress tropical cyclone formation and intensification. The ocean surface temperatures were .6 degrees Celsius higher than normal during the first 25 days of June. In general, warmer ocean temperatures fuel more evaporation of water into the air and hurricanes, so the dust particles put a damper on ocean warming temporarily.

Recent satellite images show another dust storm on its way, and the dust clouds usually peak during the month of July. Despite the good news of the dust cloud producing a slight ocean cooling, thousands of premature deaths may not be a worthwhile tradeoff.

The Saharan dust storm pollution might fit the profile of other extreme climate events that we see with increased frequency. Although there is no proof yet, the increased drought in the Sahel region of southern Africa is correlated with these events. And increased droughts are a known impact of climate change.

Joseph Prospero, an early researcher into African dust clouds says it’s unclear whether the SAL is a meteorological anomaly or if it could be a glimpse into the effects of continued warming.

Either way, it reminds us of the need to remove pollution that we can control, such as anthropogenic carbon, and find cleaner ways to produce energy and drawdown carbon. A 2019 study, performed by J. Lelieveld, et. al., published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that we could save millions of lives with “a rapid phaseout of fossil-fuel-related emissions and major reductions of other anthropogenic sources.”

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Author of Vermont’s Ebenezer Allen: Patriot, Commando and Emancipator by Arcadia/The History Press, University of Vermont EdD.

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