Science Scoops: Killer Dust!

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.

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Vocabulary

dispersal:
The act of distributing something.

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Activity

  1. Why is it important to close beaches and fisheries when there is a red tide bloom?
    [anno: People might get sick from swimming in the water, or from eating fish living in areas affected by a red tide bloom.]
  2. Think of another example in which the environmental conditions in one part of the world or the United States affects another part of the world or the United States. Write a few sentences about the effect of these conditions. Explain if the effect is good or bad, and why.
    [anno: Answers will vary.]