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A plume of Saharan dust could soon reach parts of Florida; Here's what to expect

Max Chesnes Treasure Coast Newspapers
Florida Times-Union

A strikingly colorful sunset may soon be coming to an evening sky near you.

As a layer of Saharan dust continues its nearly 5,000-mile trek westward from off the coast of Africa, National Weather Service meteorologists said Florida could see a reduced chance of tropical activity and potentially hazy skies in the coming days.

While this plume of atmospheric dust particles is "unusually large in both size and density," it is common for Saharan dust to move across the Atlantic Ocean several times each year, according to the National Weather Service Eastern Region.

A strong high-pressure system with clockwise circulation is pushing the Saharan dust across the Caribbean and toward Florida's Gulf Coast Monday, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Sedlock, in Melbourne.

Depending on the dust's density, Sedlock said the plume could have very minor effects on Florida's temperature.

"I don't think we'll see (temperature) effects on the surface per se, but we should see some nicer sunsets," Sedlock said.

These vivid sunsets are often caused when solar light scatters off the atmospheric dust particles, highlighting orange and red colors seen on the visible light spectrum, NWS Melbourne meteorologists said.

The dust, which will remain mostly aloft in the upper atmosphere and should arrive Tuesday or Wednesday, will likely pose little threat to Floridians' respiratory health, Sedlock said.

"Maybe in the Caribbean islands, but it's not generally expected to have any effects for respiratory issues across Florida," Sedlock said.

But health officials are still warning those with underlying lung conditions to avoid outdoor activities and wear masks with air filters, the New York Times reports.

The dust layer, which was even spotted from space Sunday by astronauts stationed in the International Space Station, is making its way across Puerto Rico and portions of the Dominican Republic, according to the latest forecast data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Amazing how large an area it covers!" wrote astronaut Col. Doug Hurley on Twitter, who recently launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral in the first American manned mission in nearly a decade.

After an early start to the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, the five-day tropical outlook is fairly quiet for Florida, said National Hurricane Center communications and public affairs officer Dennis Feltgen.

While the lapse in tropical activity cannot be totally linked to the westward-moving Saharan dust, it certainly creates a tough environment for storms to form, Feltgen said.

"Dry air is our friend. Dry air and tropical systems don't mix," Feltgen said. "The Saharan air layer does make it difficult for anything to get going."

As for the five-day outlook, Feltgen added: "It's been relatively quiet. There's nothing on the horizon right now."

But, a quiet week in the tropics should not stop Floridians on the Treasure Coast from continuing their preparations for any potential hurricanes, Feltgen said.

"We have a long way to go this hurricane season," he said. "Make sure to get your plan prepped now."

Traveling dust plumes typically occur between the spring and fall months, according to meteorologists at the Weather Service. Officials could not pinpoint why this plume is larger and more dense.

Dust layers often reach the Caribbean islands, but will sometimes make it as far west as the United States, Weather Service meteorologists said.

This story originally published to tcpalm.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.

What is Saharan dust?

It’s also called the Saharan air layer (SAL)

It is made up of sand and mineral particles swept up from 3.5 million square miles of desert. The top of the dust layer is 16,500 feet above the Earth’s surface.

It makes an appearance in the tropics during June and July before fading in early August.

It is a product of the parched Saharan desert and African easterly jet (a river of wind similar to North America’s jet stream but that flows east to west).