How the Sahara Dust Storms Affect Our Health and Environment

Fact checked by Megan Soliman MD, MSc
Board-certified physician at Saba University School of Medicine

Have you ever seen a light orange haze on the horizon and wondered what that is? It may be a dust cloud. Dust storms are pretty common in dry, windy climates. Mediterranean countries often experience dust storms that are brought by the wind from the Sahara desert, especially in the midst of summer. But depending on the direction of the wind, the Sahara dust can travel across the Atlantic to the Americas.

But is the Sahara dust dangerous? Continue reading to find out how the Sahara dust affects your health and what you can do to protect yourself during a dust storm.

What is a dust storm?

Dust storms happen when strong, dry winds pick up dust and sand and blow them up into the air. Dust storms usually stem from hot and dry areas like deserts, but depending on how strong the wind is, they can travel across the country or even continents. Most often you can see these clouds of dust in the summer and after a period of droughts. The Sahara in Northern Africa is by far the largest source of dust, but the dry lands of the Arabian Peninsula, Australia, America, and South Africa also contribute to dust storms.

How can you tell if you’re experiencing a dust storm?

You may think that all dust storm events look like a scene out of a sci-fi film, but depending on where you live, they may be quite understated. You may not even recognize a dust storm straight away. Sometimes you may see a cloud of dust in the sky, but other times the only giveaway is an orangy haze. Dust storm episodes can also reduce visibility a lot.

Saharan dust storm

How far can the Saharan dust travel?

The Saharan dust storms can occur throughout the year, but in summer, when the weather is generally drier, the dust gets lifted higher into the atmosphere, which allows it to travel thousands of kilometers — depending on the wind direction, it can reach the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico or Southern Europe. Due to a drier climate, the Mediterranean countries are most affected by the Saharan dust — the dust particles get suspended in the air for longer, which impacts the overall air quality.

Since you need rain for the dust to get cleared from the air, drier regions may experience more frequent and prolonged dust storms. When the rain does occur, it collects dust particles from the air and helps bring them down to the ground. After the rain evaporates, you can often see a layer of dust it leaves behind.

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How climate change affects the Sahara dust storms

As the temperatures rise globally due to climate change, drought conditions become more frequent. This can increase the amount of dust for the winds to pick up and spread around. A 2022 study found that dust storms in the western Mediterranean regions became more frequent and intense compared to 1948.

However, other research suggests that a higher level of water evaporation will lead to increased rainfall in the region. If this prediction is correct, it means the amount of dust available for transport in the region would eventually reduce and lead to less frequent Sahara dust storms.

Saharan dust 2023: Сan we expect storms?

The Saharan dust cloud can sometimes form after thunderstorms near or over the Sahara desert. Strong winds can then blow the dust away, usually towards Europe. But these huge dust clouds can travel long distances across the Atlantic Ocean and reach the Americas.

Dust storm activity in the Atlantic is more prominent in spring.

For example, a dust cloud from Northern Africa started moving towards the coast of South America in early March 2022. Since climate change leads to more drought conditions and more frequent extreme weather events, we can expect Saharan dust storms in 2023 too. People living in Mediterranean countries also report that dust storms have become more frequent in recent years, so it’s safe to assume 2023 can bring just as many, if not more, dust clouds from the Sahara in the areas that are prone to dust storms.

Is the Sahara dust dangerous?

It depends on its concentration in the air and its altitude. A high-altitude dust cloud is less likely to have a significant impact on the air we breathe. But when dust storms occur at the surface, they increase the level of particulate matter in the air, which reduces air quality and can aggravate respiratory or even cardiovascular issues. The WeatherWell app can help you keep track of the air quality in your area, flagging when it becomes potentially unsafe for you, depending on your concerns.

Dust on plants after a dust storm

Saharan dust can also carry microorganisms, including viruses and bacteria, which can potentially be a cause for concern. There’s no evidence of any infectious diseases in humans caused by viruses transported by dust across a long distance, but dust isn’t just dangerous to humans. Some research found that the Sahara dust can cause diseases in the Caribbean coral reefs. It can also harm agriculture, increasing soil erosion and suppressing photosynthetic activity in plants.

Dust clouds can lower the efficiency of solar power plants as well by covering the solar panels.

A high concentration of dust can also impact visibility, affect air and land transport, and damage aircraft engines.

But it’s not all bad; Saharan dust can also be a source of micronutrients for both land and marine ecosystems. For example, it is thought to transport iron and phosphorus and fertilize the Amazon rainforest.

Health impact of the Sahara dust

Dust storms can have serious health effects. They contribute to air pollution and noticeably reduce air quality, so they can aggravate asthma and other breathing-related conditions.

The longer you are exposed to high levels of dust, the higher the risk it will impact your health. Small dust particles can get deep into your lungs and cause serious health problems, both long- and short-term. Some of the common symptoms you may experience during a dust storm are:

  • Eye irritation and dry eyes
  • Dry and irritated throat
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Asthma attacks

Dust-related symptoms can affect anyone, but some people are particularly sensitive to the effects of dust storms. The groups with a higher risk of dust-induced health concerns include:

  • People with breathing difficulties like asthma and allergies
  • People with existing heart conditions
  • Older people aged 65 years and over
  • Infants and children
  • Pregnant women

If you experience chest pain and tightness, difficulty breathing, and wheezing during and after a dust storm, seek immediate medical assistance.

As already mentioned, dust can also transport some infectious diseases. Since dust storms are often accompanied by hot, dry weather, which can dry out sinuses, you may be more susceptible to respiratory viruses. So it’s particularly important to wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth to lower your chances of catching an infection. Still, more research is needed to determine the effects of Saharan dust storms on the spread of infectious diseases. But it’s better to be safe and limit your exposure as much as possible.

How dust storms from Africa affect the weather

Dust plays a significant role in shaping the climate. Iron-rich dust particles have been found to reflect sunlight, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface. As a result, it can cool down the atmosphere and reduce the amount of water vapor, which in turn can prevent tropical cyclones from forming or make them less frequent and powerful.

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Hurricanes need humid heat to develop, so if they hit a high-altitude dust cloud, which is naturally very dry, they can die down without even coming to fruition. Of course, that’s great news for hurricane-prone regions. However, the potential storm-suppressing effects of dust clouds may be short-lived, since they are at their strongest in June and July, while hurricane season usually peaks in August and September.

How to stay safe during a dust storm

  • Stay indoors if possible.
  • Keep your windows and doors closed to stop the dust from getting into your home.
  • Get your air vents and air conditioning filters cleaned after the storm to prevent residue dust from getting inside.
  • Wear a face mask that covers your nose and mouth when you need to go outside. Alternatively, you can cover your nose and mouth with a damp cloth — this can help filter the air.
  • Protect your eyes with sunglasses or goggles, or cover your eyes with the brim of your hat.
  • Turn on the recirculation air intake in your car if you get caught in a dust storm when driving.
  • Drive slowly or pull over if the visibility is low.
  • Drive with your lights on. It can help you see where you’re going and serve as a guide to other drivers.
  • Avoid exercising, particularly if outdoors.
  • Take your usual medication if you have asthma.

Seek medical help if you develop chest pain and breathing difficulties such as wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath.

November 21, 2022