By: Claire Ryder
As I write, storm Gloria decays over the Mediterranean Sea, while large amounts of desert dust whipped up by strong winds over the Sahara desert have been whirled in to action by Gloria and remain in the atmosphere. This dust is now being blown northwards across Europe and may travel as far as the UK. Dust reaching the UK is usually so dispersed that it’s often only noticeable by producing pretty red sunsets and dirty red rain on our cars, sometimes referred to as ‘blood rain.’ Did you notice any the weekend before last?
Figure 1: Dust forecast for 12:00 on 23rd January 2020 from the Barcelona Dust Forecast Centre (https://dust.aemet.es/forecast) showing Saharan dust being transported across Europe by storm Gloria
Most Saharan dust in the atmosphere is transported westwards across the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike dust reaching the UK, the Atlantic dust plume is present throughout the year, at varying latitudes, altitudes and intensities. It is important for climate models to be able to accurately predict dust in our atmosphere. This is because dust particles interact with sunlight (which causes an overall cooling effect) as well as thermal radiation (heat) from the Earth (which causes an overall warming effect). The balance of these two effects is the decider on whether dust in our atmosphere warms or cools the planet, and usually, scientists estimate that the cooling effect wins.
Figure 2: Satellite image for 1st August 2013 of dust stretching all the way across the Atlantic Ocean (from Suomi NPP VIIRS instrument)
However, the balance of cooling versus warming from dust is strongly sensitive to how big the dust particles actually are. Larger particles shift the impact of dust from more cooling towards more warming, as a result of how they interact with radiation.
Previously, scientists didn’t think that ‘giant’ particles, larger than about 20 microns – half the width of a human hair – could travel very far, or impact climate very much, so giant dust was excluded from climate models. However, new research shows that this is not the case (Ryder et al., 2019). Scientists have been flying aircraft over deserts and dusty oceans, taking new measurements of dust which can properly measure the giant particles.
The results clearly demonstrate that even after more than a week in the air, the largest dust particles remain doggedly present. We would expect these particles to be falling to the ground much more quickly than this, certainly within a few days, so some additional mechanism which we don’t yet understand must be keeping them airborne.
Figure 4: Dust size measurements from aircraft flights sampling dust at different points during transport over and away from the Sahara (from Ryder et al., 2019), showing that dust particle size drops rapidly in new dust storms, but doesn’t change much during longer range transport.
Our new research estimated the warming/cooling impact of the excluded giant dust particles. Over the Sahara, climate models miss 18-26% of the interactions between dust and radiation. This means that climate models are underestimating the warming impacts of dust on the Earth-atmosphere system. This may have important effects in the future – for example, if our world becomes dustier due to desertification, dust may cause additional warming which is being missed by climate models.