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Jun 23, 2020

Saharan Dust Drifts Across Caribbean

Since early this morning, a plume of the Saharan dust spread across the country. The intense dust storm started in the Saharan Desert in West Africa and began travelling across the Atlantic Ocean since last week and is making its way to the U.S.  Forecasters say it is worst large scale dust storm to be felt in the Caribbean for decades, decreasing visibility and reducing air quality.  In its path, the tropical blue skies have turned hazy, brownish and even milky. Persons with respiratory or heat conditions are advised to stay hydrated and protected during the phenomenon that is expected to continue through to next week.  Tonight, News Five’s Hipolito Novelo reports on how the Saharan Dust is moving across Belize.


Hipolito Novelo reporting

A thick cloud of Saharan Dust is blanketing the Caribbean as it makes its five thousand miles drift across the Atlantic to the United States. While this natural phenomenon is not unusual, the size and concentration of this year’s dust plume is one that hasn’t been seen in half a century. The dust cloud is so thick that it covers the African coastline on satellite imagery.


Ronald Gordon, Deputy Chief Meteorologist

“It is a very dry, dusty and warm layer of air that originates over the Sahara desert in Africa. When you have sand storms and dust storms it gets picked up in the atmosphere and transported across the Atlantic and what we call the African Easterly Jet that is a very narrow channel of fast moving wind in the middle level of the troposphere which is about one mile above the surface of the earth. That dust is transported across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean and eventually all the way to Central America even the southern United States at times.”


In Belize, instead of the typical blue sky, viewers are reporting milky hazy skies. These are images sent to News Five from across the country. This is the view in Punta Gorda. In Corozal Town, the air is dry and the sky is hazy and this is a bird’s eye view of Belmopan.


Ronald Gordon

“For us it typically creates a milky looking sky, hazy looking skies. Visibility is hindered. You are not able to see very far. It is high when it is transported but eventually the dust comes down and that is why you see the hazy conditions near the surface. It is not suspended all the time. It eventually comes down to near the surface.”


Caribbean islands are reporting dangerous conditions as the air quality across the region fell to hazardous levels. The dust plume can also have health effects. A Dangriga resident reports feeling unwell. Michael Fisher says he was on the third floor of a building when he suddenly fell ill.


Michael Fisher, Dangriga Resident

“I started to feel the air totally getting dryer and heavy, unable to breathe and then the burning sensation in my face. The only way I could have relieved myself is to go into the bathroom. I must mention that I was about three stories off the ground itself. I went inside and I soaked my eyes, face and nostrils. It came to that point whereby I had difficulty breathing. It was like a wheezing way of some air. I went inside and automatically, the air inside was much thinner and I started to breathe a little bit.”


Ronald Gordon

“Yes it does have effect on people with respiratory conditions, asthmatic people. There are also reports that it might irritate the skin. When I was in Barbados there were reports of it having effects on skin.”


The silver lining to this dust blanket is that the dry and dusty layer of air can suppress storms.


Ronald Gordon

“Anecdotally it has been seen that whenever you have a strong outbreak of the Saharan air layer phenomena it tend to suppress tropical storm formation. One of the reasons we believe this happens is one it is a very dry air layer. Hurricanes typically need a lot of moisture in order to form and intensify. Another reason is that it creates a stable air mass. By that I mean that you have warmer air over cooler surfaces and that tends to create tropical stability. Thunder storms are not able to grow in them and Hurricanes are not able to form. A third factor that the Saharan air layer affects hurricane formation is by providing what we call strong vertical wind shear. That occurs when you have wind at high level of atmosphere faster than the ones at the lower level. All these factors tend to suppress hurricane activity when you have a strong outbreak of the Saharan air layer.”


It is expected that in a week’s time, if wind conditions remain the same, the Saharan Dust will pass over Belize with intensity of the cloud increasing in the next few days. Reporting for News Five, I am Hipolito Novelo.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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