A strong wind current moving from east to west has been blowing the cloud — a mix of dust and sand from Africa’s Sahara Desert — across the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico for just over a week, said Handlos. These dust clouds are a common occurrence, particularly at this time of year, but the size and thickness of this particular cloud, nicknamed the Godzilla dust cloud, make it the largest in a long time.
“If you look at the last 20 years, this one is in its own class,” said Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences program at the University of Georgia. “It took a while for the wind system that normally comes off the coast of Africa to get started this year, so there was so much time for that stuff to build up.”
The slow-moving cloud, traveling at speeds between 10 and 50 miles per hour at any given time, floats far above the Earth’s surface at around 20,000 feet, according to the NOAA Hurricane Research Division. In addition to bringing hazy skies wherever it blows, one NASA-funded study showed the dusty air may also cause blooms of fish-killing toxic algae in the water.
On the positive side, the elevated level of dry, dusty air could impact cloud development, according to some research, and can also make it harder for air to rise and form the rotations that create tropical storms and hurricanes. “There is no hurricane out there right now. If they did develop and we had these belches of dust coming off the coast of Africa, they would impede it,” Shepherd said.
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The dust clouds tend to sweep through the skies from mid-June and usually end by mid-August, Morgan said.
Already, another belch of dust is on its way from Africa to the Atlantic, said Shepherd, but he warns that these events are not evidence of something gone horribly wrong. “It remains to be seen if that one ends up being as significant as this one,” he said, but “It is not the apocalypse. It is not the 2020 curse.”