Each year more than 180 million tons of dust blow out from North Africa, lofted out of the Sahara Desert by strong seasonal winds. Perhaps most familiar are the huge, showy plumes that advance across the tropical Atlantic Ocean toward the Americas. But the dust goes elsewhere, too—settling back down in other parts of Africa or drifting north toward Europe.
A dramatic display of airborne dust particles (above) was observed on February 18, 2021, by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the NOAA-20 spacecraft. The dust appears widespread, but particularly stirred up over the Bodélé Depression in northeastern Chad.
The image below, also acquired on February 18, shows the scale of the plume in relation to continents bordering the Atlantic Ocean. It was acquired by the NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) on NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite.
While much of the plume appears west of Africa, a tendril of dust can be seen riding the winds toward Europe. According to a story by research meteorologist Marshall Shepherd, strong and persistent winds from the south drive Saharan dust toward Europe at least a few times a year.
Forecasts from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service indicated that most of the dust reaching Europe this weekend will likely be concentrated over Spain and France, but some may carry as far north as Norway. Parts of Spain might see “mud rain,” as the approaching dust plume combines with a weather front.
The mid-February dust storm follows an intense event earlier in the month over southern and central Europe. Saharan dust from that storm coated the snow on the Pyrenees and Alps and turned skies orange in France.
Dust can degrade air quality and accelerate the melting of snow cover. But it also plays a major role in Earth’s climate and biological systems, absorbing and reflecting solar energy and fertilizing ocean ecosystems with iron and other minerals that plants and phytoplankton need to grow.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE, GIBS/Worldview, and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Story by Kathryn Hansen.