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SeaWiFS Dust to Dust

February 26 sandstorm over the Atlantic Ocean

The north Atlantic Ocean borders one of the most active arid and semi-arid regions in the world: the northwest African continent, home of the Sahara and Sahel deserts and source of the majority of dust storms that are frequently transported aloft for many thousands of miles across the tropical Atlantic. The most intense dust storm activity is generally considered to occur from late spring to late summer. However, dust outbreaks can also take place during the non-dusty season, such as was the case on February 26, 2000 (image at top). SeaWiFS captured this massive dust cloud and monitored its spatial and temporal evolution as it moved over the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the dust was carried southwestward toward South America, but a portion of the dust cloud was transported northward toward Britain and eventually toward the east coast of the United States.


Aerosol radiance at 865 nm dust storm image Aerosol radiance at 865 nm color palette


The figure above shows the aerosol radiance at 865 nm for the same dust storm. A partial cloud mask (white) has been applied. The color palette shows the corresponding radiance values.

On March 11 the dust in this dust plume reached the northeastern coast of South America. The image below was acquired at the HRPT receiving station at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez. The bright specks of color that can be seen in this image (about halfway down) are due to brief loss of signal from the spacecraft while the data was being acquired. The curved edges are the boundaries of the SeaWiFS scanning range. Country borders and the coastline have been mapped on this image.

SeaWiFS Image of Caribbean Sea and South America, March 11, 1999

Dust particles from such plumes are one type of "natural" component (other components are sea salt and volcanic ash) that comprise atmospheric aerosols. The other constituents are primarily anthropogenic in nature, and are ejected into the atmosphere as a result of fossil fuel combustion or biomass burning. Aerosols in general, and dust in particular, are of growing concern because of their potential influence on climate. As dust can both directly (by absorbing and scattering solar radiation) and indirectly (by altering cloud properties) affect climate, global coverage monitoring the intensities of dust storms and their spatial/temporal patterns is of great interest.

There are several other reasons to study aeolian events such as these. One reason is that dust particles, which are derived from the Earth's crust, can contain elements such as iron which are known to be the limiting micronutrient to phytoplankton growth in some parts of the world's open ocean regions. Although the Atlantic Ocean is generally not considered to be iron-limited, uptake of iron by surface-residing phytoplankton can result in increased rates of carbon dioxide assimilation, which in turn may result in climate change effects.

Aeolian aerosols may also be viewed as a transport vehicle by which other substances are carried long distances. For example, pollution products, pathogens, or agronomical pests can be brought from one part of the world to another, all within a matter of a few days. The increased appearance of certain diseases has raised the question of a possible link to alterations in climate such as prolonged periods of rainfall or drought. (Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment) Also, studies are underway to test the hypothesis that dust storms emanating from the African continent and crossing the Atlantic may in fact carry pathogens or other substances that are responsible for the demise of some coral reefs in the Caribbean. (USGS Center for Coastal Geology) And finally, there may even be a connection between dust storm activity in the Sahel and hurricane intensity in the Atlantic. (Third World Foundation)

Although the main mission of SeaWiFS is to look at ocean color, this sensor is clearly capable of monitoring large-scale dust and pollution plumes on a global scale, thus providing a platform from which ocean-atmosphere interactions may be studied.

(Text and images contributed by Dr. Petra Stegmann, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.; Dr. Stegmann is now with the NOAA Pacific Fisheries Environmental Laboratory. Additional images provided by Norman Kuring, SeaWiFS Project, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The "Ocean Color Spectrum" article in the Summer 2000 issue of Backscatter magazine, published by the Alliance for Marine Remote Sensing, also discussed aerosol dust monitoring.)

Saharan dust outbreak over the Canary Islands observed on June 22, 1998. On the following day, atmospheric dust collectors located at IzaƱa on the island of Tenerife recorded the highest dust load ever measured.

Sand over the Canary
Islands, June 22, 1998

The Mars Global Surveyor captured an image of a dust storm off of the northern polar cap on August 29, 2000. The shape of this Martian dust storm is remarkably similar to the shape of the Saharan dust storm observed by SeaWiFS in late February 2000.

Dust storm on Mars

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Last updated: Apr 06, 2016 10:25 AM ET