If you saw our June 22 Image of the Day with global maps of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), you may have noticed large concentrations over the Sahara Desert and the Arabian Peninsula. With vast deserts in these areas, it’s not a surprise that the satellites detected so many particulates. Winds regularly send plumes of dust blowing over the region and even to Europe and the Americas.
However, it isn’t clear how damaging dust particles are to human health in comparison to other types of fine aerosol particles (such as those produced by burning fossil fuels or biomass burning). Several teams of epidemiologists have looked for associations between outbreaks of Saharan dust and health problems, but the results have been mixed. A literature review published in 2012 summarized the state of the science this way: “The association of fine particles PM2.5, with total or cause-specific mortality is not significant during Saharan dust intrusions. However, regarding coarser fractions PM10 and PM2.5-10, an explicit answer cannot be given. Some of the published studies state that they increase mortality during Sahara dust days while other studies find no association between mortality and PM10 or PM2.5-10. The main conclusion of this review is that health impacts of Saharan dust outbreaks needs to be further explored.”
Since dust is natural and may not have significant effects on human health, the team of Dalhousie University scientists who developed the global PM2.5 exposure maps prepared two versions of their data. One shows total PM2.5 concentration (top map above) globally; the other shows PM2.5 excluding contributions from dust and sea salt (bottom map). Notice how much less PM2.5 appears in northern Africa when dust is excluded.
To get a sense of how PM2.5 concentration (excluding dust and sea salt) has changed between 2000 and 2010, see the map below. Notice that while PM2.5 has decreased over North America and Europe, it has increased over Asia. To read more about what is driving these trends, read this story. To learn more about the data used to create these maps, visit this website.