'Godzilla dust cloud' arrives in US

A massive plume of dust whipped up from the Sahara desert will hover over the US southeast this weekend, forecasters say, shrouding the region in a brown haze and raising more health concerns in states where the coronavirus crisis is worsening.

The 5600km cloud, dubbed the 'Godzilla dust cloud', traveled 8000km from North Africa before reaching the region stretching from Florida west into Texas and north into North Carolina through Arkansas, the National Weather Service (NWS) said. The dust storm could be seen as far as Pahrump, Nevada.

This year, the dust is the most dense it has been in a half a century, several meteorologists told Reuters earlier this week as it crossed over the Caribbean.

"There's emerging evidence of potential interactions between air pollution and the risk of COVID, so at this stage we are concerned," said Gregory Wellenius, an professor of environmental health at Boston University's School of Public Health.

The cloud reached Cuba on Thursday (local time), leaving a tan haze in the sky and enveloping buildings in Havana. The cloud settled over the horizon and dimmed a fierce summer sun.

The Cuban government has already mandated the use of face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, but recommended residents with asthma or other respiratory ailments to remain indoors until the cloud passes over the island.

Shots from the International Space Station this week showed just how big the cloud, formally known as the Saharan Air Layer, really is.

NASA said on its site the cloud will bring some benefits to the Americas.

"Dust from Africa can affect air quality as far away as North and South America if it is mixed down to ground level," wrote Rob Gutro of the Goddard Space Center.

"But dust can also play an important ecological role, such as, fertilising soils in the Amazon and building beaches in the Caribbean. The dry, warm, and windy conditions associated with Saharan Air Layer outbreaks from Africa can also suppress the formation and intensification of tropical cyclones."

NASA image showing the aerosol index, combined with visible light.
NASA image showing the aerosol index, combined with visible light. Photo credit: NASA

The dry air mass that carries the dust can suppress tropical storm and hurricane formation and can enhance and illuminate sunrises and sunsets, meteorologists said.

The Saharan dust plume will hang over the region until the middle of next week, deteriorating the air quality in Texas, Florida and other states where the number of COVID-19 cases has recently spiked.

"While Saharan dust transport across the ocean to the Americas is not uncommon, the size and strength of this particular event is quite unusual, said NASA atmospheric scientist Colin Seftor.

And it might just be the first in a wave of dust clouds to cross the ocean this year.

"Also, if you look off the coast of Africa, you can see yet another large cloud coming off the continent, continuing to feed the long chain of dust traveling across the Atlantic,"said Seftor.

Reuters / APTN / Newshub.