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Saharan dust arrives in Florida, with potential air quality impacts and more

July 9, 2024

A large plume of Saharan Dust — the first of the year — has arrived in Florida. This is usually good news for the tropics, but bad news for allergies and respiratory issues. It can also pump up the heat in an already sweltering summer.

The Saharan dust travels more than 5,000 miles from Africa every year, but this year, the National Weather Service says it is nearly 60%-70% dustier than normal and that is making it rough for those with allergies. NOAA started tracking the annual dust storms about 20 years ago. The storm is also roughly the size of the lower 48 in the United States, making it one of the larger Sahara Dust storms tracked.

NOAA uses a combination of land-based stations, satellites, and the hurricane hunter aircraft to collect and measurement data for the Sahara Dust storm each year. Studies on the impact of the storm help researchers understand how the size of each year’s storm can affect the atmosphere as well as the Atlantic hurricane season for that year. Saharan dust helps weaken and suppress tropical cyclone formation and intensification, according to the National Weather Service and NOAA.

Most of the dust is aloft between 5,000 - 15,000 feet in the atmosphere. But the particles eventually travel down to the surface, to the air we breathe in, and that’s where the respiratory issues can begin. Saharan dust can irritate people’s eyes, ears, noses and throats. If you have allergies or respiratory health issues like asthma or chronic bronchitis, you may want to stay indoors and take your allergy medication.

If you think you might be suffering from the dust particles from the Saharan dust, here are some tips to help:

  • Stay indoors as much as possible while the dust is in the air or wear a mask while outside
  • Run a HEPA filter indoors to purify air, especially in the bedroom
  • Patients who use rescue or controlling medications for pulmonary conditions should have them on hand at all times and use as prescribed
  • Seek professional medical advice at the first sign of difficulty breathing
  • For less severe symptoms, standard allergy medications such as antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays might be helpful
  • If you are experiencing a sore throat and runny nose and are unsure whether it is COVID, get tested

Parts of Florida and the Southeast will see brilliant sunrises and sunsets with more dust in the atmosphere, which typically lasts a few weeks. Sahara Dust storms are a typical feature of weather in the northern summer, starting in late May and generally running through August, but the lasting effects of the mass of dry air at the equator can have knock-on effects to the hurricane season, which is traditionally considered to run through December. Sahara dust has been found in virtually all parts of the globe—even atop glaciers at or near both poles.

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Sources include nearest National Weather Service office, National Hurricane Center, and the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network (@FloridaStorms).
Sources include nearby emergency management agencies, FEMA, and your local NPR affiliate. 
Sources include the Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Highway Patrol and other nearby traffic information.

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Partners of the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network include: Florida's Division of Emergency Management, WDNA (Miami), WFIT (Melbourne), WMFE (Orlando), WFSU (Tallahassee), WGCU (Fort Myers), WJCT (Jacksonville), WKGC (Panama City), WLRN (Miami), WMNF (Tampa-Sarasota), WQCS (Fort Pierce), WUFT (Gainesville-Ocala), WUSF (Tampa), WUWF (Pensacola) and Florida Public Media.

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