Saharan Dust Update and interview with Dr. Marshall Shepherd

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The Saharan Dust has crept its way across the Gulf Coast and has been showing up as far north as North Alabama and Georgia. It could be mixing with our cloud cover in Middle Tennessee on Friday evening.

Madison, AL west of Huntsville this morning : Saharan Dust mixing with high clouds. Picture from Jonathon Beeson

News 2 spoke with Dr. Marshall Shepherd, former NASA scientist and now director of the University of Georgia’s Atmospheric Science Program about the arrival of the dust in the deep south.

“So, these dust storms, this is a big one and it’s getting a lot of attention,” explained Dr. Shepherd. “And rightfully so, because it does have health implications. But we see them every year, just not this big. I’m here in the Metropolitan Atlanta area here on Friday afternoon and I looked up at the sky and it’s a little hazy and milky, and not quite as blue as you would expect. And that’s what we would expect with this type of dust storm.”

Atlanta, GA: Saharan Dust creating a milky sky . Picture from our good friend Jeff Morrow

“Now the bulk of it won’t be in Georgia and in Middle Tennessee where you are until this later weekend. But I think parts of the United States, Gulf Coast states, and a little bit here in the southeast are starting to see evidence of its presence, Dr. Shepherd said.”

One question is ‘will this bring poor air quality to parts of the south this weekend?’

“I think that’s one thing that I’m concerned about,” said Shepherd. “While I’ve been trying to tamp down the over-hype on this event, there is enough of a health threat that people need to pay attention to. So I’m glad that the media and folks like you are covering this, because some people who have upper respiratory issues or dust allergies, they could have some aggravation.

I was in Puerto Rico one time, talking to the locals there, and they were saying how these dust events really cause health problems there. They get them all the time there in Puerto Rio or the Caribbean. So, if you have a dust allergy or upper respiratory issues, I would pay close attention over the next couple of days to what’s going on in your area just as a safety precaution.”

The Saharan Dust travels across the Atlantic every year to places like the Caribbean, and sometimes the Gulf Coast (some reached Texas last year). So why is this one so different?

“So indeed, we see these storms every year, and some are worse than others,” explained Shepherd. “This is an off the chart one that’s definitely an extreme event. Typically, you have an easterly wind system called the “African Easterly Jet” and it starts to blow and move the sand off the African continent into the Atlantic.”

“This year it was delayed a little bit,” explained Shepherd. “So all that dust and sand in the Saharan region had a chance to really build up. And so once that African Jet, and that’s just a weather geek term we like to use for very strong easterly winds. Once that thing really got going, it had a lot of dust to pick up. And so that why we have this extreme weather event we’re experiencing here in 2020.”

The good news about the Saharan Dust is that it suppresses tropical storm and hurricane development while it is present, and there is another plume crossing the Atlantic right now.

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