Science Scoops: Killer Dust!
Illustration by Mike Phillips
It comes from Africa. It travels thousands of miles. And when it gets here, it kills huge numbers of fish, shellfish, marine animals, and birds. It can even cause sickness in humans.
What is “it”? “It” is Saharan dust clouds. In the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of West Florida, windblown Saharan dust ultimately falls every year.
In a NASA-funded study, graduate student Jason Lenes (University of South Florida's College of Marine Science) and his colleagues used data from an imager aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites, as well as ground-based measurements, to track large dust clouds leaving Africa.
It turns out that storm activity in the Sahara Desert region generates clouds of dust that originate from fine particles in the arid topsoil, which contains iron. Easterly trade winds carry the dust across the Atlantic Ocean and into the Gulf of Mexico, where it is deposited. Once the Saharan dust is deposited, it fertilizes the water with iron, setting off blooms of red toxic algae commonly referred to as “red tides.”
The blooms are huge. In Lenes' study, they formed in an 8,100-square-mile region between Tampa Bay and Fort Myers, Florida. Around the Gulf of Mexico, millions of fish and hundreds of manatees have reportedly died in a single red tide bloom. And humans who swim in the Gulf during a red tide, or those who eat shellfish affected by it, can suffer severe ailments.
By using satellites to monitor the dispersal of Saharan dust and the onset of blooms, Lenes believes he may soon be able to forecast red tides. “If you could predict when a red tide is coming, you could close beaches and fisheries ahead of time,” he says.
- What happens to the habitat in the Gulf of Mexico when Saharan dust is deposited in its waters?
- Why do you think that so many organisms die after a red tide?
- Do you think that red tides might be beneficial in any way? Why or why not? Write a few sentences to explain your answer.