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Saharan dust covers Highland Lakes skies

Saharan Desert dust leaves North Africa

A cloud of Saharan dust leaves North Africa as winds carry it over the Atlantic Ocean. Some of it reached the Highland Lakes this week. NOAA image

A light orange-tinted haze visible in the air across the Highland Lakes is a plume of Saharan Desert dust blown across the Atlantic Ocean from North Africa.

Though the dust typically sits a mile or so above the ground, it still can cause air-quality and health issues for some people. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality listed air quality in the Austin area as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” through at least Friday, June 17, due to the dust. 

Saharan dust traveling to the United States is rather common and can happen anytime of the year, but the peak season is usually from June through mid-August, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

North Africa is Earth’s largest source of airborne dust. Researchers estimate North African winds pick up more than 100 million tons of dust a year, casting a sizable portion of it across the Atlantic Ocean.

New plumes or outbreaks of dust occur about every three to five days, with some making it to the Southeastern United States and Texas, Dr. Jason Dunion, a University of Miami hurricane researcher working with NOAA’s National Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, explained on the NOAA website. The current plume is expected to last through Friday. Dust will peak again on Thursday, June 16. 

While dust particles aren’t allergens such as pollen, they can irritate people’s eyes, noses, and throats and cause trouble breathing. People who are extremely sensitive to dust or similar particles or who have underlying health conditions such as asthma or upper respiratory issues should stay indoors as much as possible during Saharan dust coverage, health officials recommend. Face coverings can help when outdoors.

The unique properties of Saharan dust suppress cloud and thunderstorm development. Areas affected by it could experience some of “their hottest days of summer,” according to National Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory researchers.

The Saharan dust storms have a few positives. Dust particles in the atmosphere create extravagant, beautiful sunsets. They also “have significant moderating impacts on tropical cyclone (hurricane) formation and intensification,” according to Dunion and NOAA researchers.