In late June of 2020, a dust plume originating in the Sahara Desert traveled 5,000 miles across the Atlantic ocean, all the way to the continental United States. Variably referred to as a “dust storm,” a “dust cloud,” and “Godzilla," the headline-making plume was actually an example of a regular weather phenomenon.1 In true 2020 form, however, this one was more extreme than usual.
This type of plume usually reaches the Gulf Coast of the United States, the Caribbean, and South America, where it deposits nutrients for plant life in the Amazon rainforest.1 In 2020, however, it was much bigger than usual and held together all the way across the Atlantic rather than tapering off. As a result, it created surreal sunsets and sepia skies everywhere from Miami and New Orleans to the mid-Atlantic.2,3
Although dust storms can impact air quality and trigger breathing troubles for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma, the name is misleading, as the plume is not actually made of dust in the way we think of the household dust that commonly triggers allergies. The “dust” in this case comprises particles of silicia, iron, and phosphorous that originate in an ancient dry lake bed at the border of the Sahara and Sahel deserts in Chad.2