'Godzilla' dust plume sweeps across the Atlantic, ESA imagery shows

Amazing satellite imagery shows giant dust plume known as ‘Godzilla’ sweeping across the Atlantic from the Sahara to the Caribbean

  • New data from the European Space Agency (ESA) shows the giant orange cloud
  • ESA animation shows Godzilla’s journey across the Atlantic in under one month 
  • It’s about 60 to 70 per cent dustier than the average outbreak from the Sahara

New satellite imagery from the European Space Agency (ESA) shows a giant orange dust cloud, nicknamed ‘Godzilla’, making its way across the Atlantic Ocean.

Over a period of less than a month, the impressive plume reached the Caribbean, South America and the US from its initial spot in the Sahara Desert.   

The ESA has provided an animation showing the spread of particles from the Saharan dust plume moving westward from June 1 to June 26 this year.  

The data, captured by the ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel and Aeolus satellites, shows the summer dust plume on its great journey, around 1.8 to 3.7 miles above the ground. 

ESA images also show the dust cloud over Cabo Verde, an island nation off the west coast of Africa, and in Cuba in the Caribbean.  

It was roughly the size of the lower 48 US states during its 5,000-mile trek, eventually spreading across the skies of the southeastern US from Texas to North Carolina. 

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Data from the Copernicus Sentinel satellites and ESA’s Aeolus satellite show the extent of this year’s summer dust plume, dubbed ‘Godzilla,’ on its journey across the Atlantic

‘Normally, Saharan dust plumes disperse in the atmosphere and sink into the Atlantic before reaching the Americas,’ the ESA said in a blog post.

‘However this year, the dense concentration of dust travelled approximately 8000 km and can be seen arriving near the Caribbean and the southern United States.’

The cloud actually forms annually, but this year’s version is unusual owing to its size and the distance travelled.

Aerosols from Saharan dust plume as it passes from the west coast of Africa over Cabo Verde, an island nation off the west coast of Africa

WHAT IS THE SAHARAN AIR LAYER?

The Saharan Air Layer is a mass of very dry, dusty air that forms over the Sahara Desert during the late spring, summer, and early fall.

It moves over the tropical North Atlantic Ocean every three to five days. 

Saharan Air Layer outbreaks usually occupy a 2 to 2.5-mile-thick layer of the atmosphere with the base starting about 1 mile above the surface. 

Source: NOAA 

According to NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, the dust plume was somewhere between 60 to 70 per cent dustier than average, making it the dustiest event since records began around 20 years ago. 

‘This recent June Saharan Air Layer outbreak is impressive for its size, how far it travelled, and the amount of dry, dusty air that it contained,’ NOAA said. 

Also known by its meteorological name, the ‘Saharan Air Layer’, the cloud typically forms between late spring and early autumn, peaking in late June to mid-August. 

Every summer the wind carries large amounts of desert dust particles from the hot and dry desert in northern Africa westerly across the Atlantic.  

Large amounts of dust particles from the African desert are swept up into the dry air by thunderstorms and strong winds near the ground. 

The dust can then float for days, or weeks, depending on how dry, fast and turbulent the air masses become, the ESA explains. 

Winds in the higher troposphere – the lowest lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere – then sweep dust across the Atlantic.

Although the small particles can trigger air quality alerts and irritate those with respiratory issues, the dust can also enhance sunsets, suppress tropical storm development and plays an important role in our ecosystem. 

Above Boa Vista, an island in Cape Verde, off the coast of West Africa. Seen here are the islands of Fogo (right) and the smaller Brava (left)

The dust is a major source of nutrients which are essential for phytoplankton – microscopic marine plants that drift on or near the surface of the ocean. 

Some of the minerals from the dust falls into the ocean, triggering blooms of phytoplankton to form on the ocean surface, which in turn provides food for other marine life.

The dust is also essential for life in the Amazon as it replenishes nutrients in rainforest soils, which would otherwise be depleted by frequent rainfall.

This image, captured by the Copernicus Sentinel-2 and Sentinel-3 missions, show the dust particles over Cuba 

The dry and dusty air layers have also been shown to put a lid on the development of hurricanes and storms in the Atlantic. 

If a storm were to develop, it would collide with the dusty and dry layers of air of cloud, preventing it from growing further.

The data is based on two ESA machines floating around the Earth – ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, launched in October 2017, maps air pollutants using an instrument that measures radiation of different wavelengths. 

This composite image below shows combined observations from the Aeolus satellite and the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite on 19 June 2020. The underlying Sentinel-5P aerosol index in florescent yellow and green, which indicates the extent of the elevated Saharan dust plume over the Atlantic, has been overlaid with Aeolus’ aerosol and cloud information

Aeolus, meanwhile, launched the following year, is the first satellite mission to acquire global profiles of Earth’s wind to help improve weather forecasts. 

Aeolus also delivers information about the vertical distribution of aerosol and cloud layers. 

‘This combination of satellite data allow scientists to improve their understanding of the Saharan Air Layer, and allows forecasters to provide better air quality predictions,’ the ESA says. 

WHAT IS THE ESA’S AEOLUS SATELLITE?

The Aeolus satellite, launched by the European Space Agency on August 22, 2018, will track wind speed and direction across the globe.

During its three-year mission it will fire lasers into Earth’s lower atmosphere and collect the scattering of light that reflects back from dust, gas and droplets of water moving in wind.

The speed at which various markers, and the winds that carry them, are moving will be revealed by changes in the wavelength of the light. 

Aeolus will fire lasers into Earth’s lower atmosphere and collect the scattering of light that reflects back from dust, gas and droplets of water moving in wind (artist’s impression)

Scientists will use this data to predict the weather in the hopes of revolutionising weather forecasting methods.

Aeolus will track wind speeds at altitudes between six and 18 miles (10-30 km) – a region that scientists currently struggle to measure.

It will collect data from areas without ground-based weather stations, such as in remote regions on land or at sea.

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