(Last Updated On: July 17, 2023)

Saharan Dust Storms & Air Quality in the USA

The Saharan dust storm is a natural phenomenon that happens every year. However, the size and intensity of the dust storm can vary from year to year. The current dust storm is expected to be a significant event, so it’s important to be aware of the potential health impacts and what you can do to protect your respiratory system. With all of the wildfire smoke and now a dust storm, it’s going to be a hazy summer.

Dust storm rolling over residential area

A large cloud of Saharan dust is currently moving across the Atlantic Ocean and is expected to reach the United States by mid-July. The dust is being blown off the coast of Africa by strong winds, and it is expected to cover a large area of the Caribbean and the southeastern United States.

The dust could have a number of effects on the weather in the United States. It could reduce visibility, make the air quality worse, and even cool down temperatures slightly. The dust could also interfere with radar and satellite imagery, making it more difficult for forecasters to track weather systems.

Here are some of the potential impacts of the Saharan dust storm:

  • Reduced visibility: The dust could reduce visibility to as low as 1 mile in some areas. This could make driving and flying dangerous, and it could also lead to respiratory problems for people with allergies or asthma.
  • Air quality: The dust could make air quality worse, especially in urban areas. This could lead to respiratory problems for people with allergies or asthma, and it could also make it difficult for people with COPD or other lung diseases to breathe.
  • Cooler temperatures: The dust could cool down temperatures slightly by blocking out some of the sun’s rays. This could be a welcome relief in some areas that are experiencing a heat wave.
  • Interference with radar and satellite imagery: The dust could interfere with radar and satellite imagery, making it more difficult for forecasters to track weather systems. This could make it harder to predict the path of storms and other weather events.

If you are planning to travel to an area that is affected by the dust storm, you should be prepared for the potential impacts. You should also check the air quality forecast before you travel, and you should wear a mask if the air quality is poor. Here are some tips for staying safe during a Saharan dust storm:

Are Saharan Dust Storms In the US Common?

The most recent intense Saharan dust storm to travel across the US was in June 2020. The dust cloud was so large that it was dubbed the “Godzilla dust cloud” by some meteorologists. The dust cloud covered an area of over 1 million square miles and stretched from the west coast of Africa to the Caribbean.

The dust cloud reached the US in late June and early July 2020. It caused reduced visibility, poor air quality, and even some health problems for people with respiratory conditions. The dust cloud also helped to suppress the development of tropical storms in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Saharan dust storm in 2020 was one of the most intense dust storms to hit the US in recent years. It is a reminder of the importance of being aware of the potential impacts of Saharan dust storms and taking steps to protect yourself if you are affected by one.

What are Saharan Dust Storms?

Saharan dust storms are a fascinating and formidable natural phenomenon. Originating from the largest hot desert in the world, the Sahara, these dust storms carry millions of tons of fine particulate matter across thousands of miles, even reaching the shores of the United States.

A Saharan dust storm occurs when high-speed winds pick up loose dust and sand particles from the Sahara desert’s surface. The particles, being incredibly small and lightweight, can be carried high into the atmosphere and transported vast distances by prevailing winds. During certain times of the year, these winds blow from east to west, carrying the dust across the Atlantic Ocean, affecting not only the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico but also reaching the southern and eastern parts of the United States.

The impacts of these storms on the USA are multifaceted and significant. The most obvious effect is a visible haze in the sky, often causing stunningly vibrant sunsets. However, beneath this beauty lie some serious concerns. The dust can degrade air quality, leading to potential health risks, especially for individuals with respiratory issues such as asthma or allergies. It can also have broader environmental effects, including impacts on weather patterns and ecosystems.

Saharan dust storms are caused by powerful winds that lift loose particles of sand and dust from the Sahara Desert’s surface. These particles can be lofted high into the atmosphere, where they’re carried across vast distances by trade winds. The size of these particles varies, but many are so tiny that they can be suspended in the air for weeks or even months, allowing them to travel great distances.

How frequently do Saharan Dust Storms affect the USA?

The frequency of Saharan dust storms reaching the USA varies but tends to be more common during the summer months, particularly from June to August. The exact timing and intensity depend on a variety of factors, including weather patterns and wind speeds in Africa and across the Atlantic. Typically, the United States may experience several significant dust events each year.

How does a Saharan Dust Storm affect overall air quality?

Saharan dust storms can significantly affect air quality by increasing the levels of particulate matter in the air. These particles can cause hazy conditions and reduce visibility. More critically, when inhaled, these fine particles can penetrate deep into the lungs, potentially causing health issues. For individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma or COPD, a period of elevated dust can exacerbate symptoms and trigger attacks.

Can Saharan Dust Storms carry pathogens or other harmful substances?

Saharan dust has been found to carry various microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. While most of these organisms are not harmful to humans, some can potentially cause diseases. Additionally, the dust particles themselves can carry trace amounts of heavy metals and other pollutants picked up during their trans-Atlantic journey. However, the risk of exposure to these contaminants through dust events is generally low and primarily of concern for individuals with heightened sensitivity or pre-existing health conditions.

The Relationship between Saharan Dust Storms and Climate Change

Climate change may be impacting the frequency and intensity of Saharan dust storms. Rising temperatures can lead to increased desertification, providing more material for dust storms. Changes in wind patterns and precipitation can also affect how far and how often the dust travels. Conversely, Saharan dust storms can influence climate as well. Dust particles in the atmosphere reflect sunlight back into space, which can have a cooling effect. They also play a critical role in fertilizing both land and ocean ecosystems by delivering essential nutrients, which can impact carbon sequestration. The intricate relationship between dust storms and climate underscores the interconnectedness of global environmental processes.

Health and Environmental Effects of Saharan Dust Storms

Inhaling Saharan dust particles can pose health risks, particularly for individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions. The fine particles found in dust storms can penetrate deep into the lungs and may trigger asthma attacks, cause allergic reactions, or worsen other respiratory illnesses. Moreover, the dust can carry microbes and pollutants that, when inhaled, could potentially cause health issues. However, for most people, the health risks are relatively low and may cause only temporary discomfort, such as itchy eyes or a scratchy throat.

What should individuals with respiratory issues do during a Saharan dust storm?

During a Saharan dust storm, individuals with respiratory issues should stay indoors as much as possible and keep windows and doors closed to minimize exposure to the dust. They should also monitor their local air quality index and follow any advice or recommendations from local health authorities. Using air purifiers with HEPA filters in their homes can help reduce the concentration of dust particles in indoor air. If they need to go outside, wearing a mask can provide some protection. It’s also crucial for these individuals to keep their medications close at hand and follow their asthma or COPD action plans.

What’s the environmental impact of Saharan dust storms moving across the USA?

Saharan dust storms can have various environmental impacts. The dust particles can affect air quality and visibility, as well as influence weather patterns, potentially suppressing hurricane formation over the Atlantic by creating drier air and cooler sea surface temperatures. On land, the dust can affect soil quality, sometimes detrimentally by depositing heavy metals and other pollutants, but also beneficially by adding nutrients in some areas.

Despite the potential challenges Saharan dust storms may cause, they also have some positive effects. The dust can deposit nutrients like iron and phosphorus that are essential for plant growth in nutrient-poor regions and oceans, stimulating productivity. For example, the Amazon rainforest relies on Saharan dust to replenish nutrients lost from heavy rainfall. Similarly, dust deposition in the Atlantic Ocean can promote the growth of phytoplankton, the base of the marine food web. So, while dust storms can present certain issues, they are also an integral part of our global ecosystem.

Role of Air Purifiers in Mitigating the Effects of Saharan Dust Storms

To prepare for a Saharan dust storm, you should consider using air purifiers in your home, particularly in rooms where you spend the most time, like bedrooms or living rooms. Prior to the arrival of the dust storm, ensure that the air purifier is functioning properly and that filters are clean. Running the air purifier continuously during a dust event can help maintain good indoor air quality.

Air purifiers with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters are the most effective at removing Saharan dust particles from indoor air. HEPA filters can trap a large percentage of particles, including fine dust particles. Additionally, some air purifiers include activated carbon filters that can help absorb gases and odors, providing an extra layer of air purification.

HEPA filters are designed to trap 99.97% of particles that are 0.3 microns in diameter or larger, which includes the majority of dust particles in a Saharan dust storm. However, it’s important to note that while HEPA filters are highly effective, they are not 100% efficient at removing particles smaller than 0.3 microns. Nevertheless, using an air purifier with a HEPA filter can significantly improve indoor air quality during a Saharan dust storm.

Choosing and Maintaining Air Purifiers

Air purifier manufacturers have enhanced their products over time, making them more capable of handling fine particulates like Saharan dust. Features such as pre-filters to capture larger particles and prolong the life of the HEPA filter, activated carbon filters to absorb gases and odors, and ionizers to help remove ultrafine particles are becoming more common. When choosing an air purifier to combat Saharan dust particles, consider the following key features:

  1. Filter type: Look for purifiers with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters. These filters can remove at least 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and other airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns.
  2. Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR): This rating indicates the volume of filtered air delivered by an air purifier. The higher the CADR number, the more air it filters per minute for that particle size range.
  3. Size and capacity: Choose a purifier that fits the room’s size where you plan to use it. Manufacturers usually specify the maximum room size their product is designed for.
  4. Noise level: Since you might need to run your air purifier for extended periods, ensure it operates quietly. Look for air purifiers that operate at 49 decibels or less. Anything higher then 51 will likely be too noisy for everyday use.
  5. Cost and availability of replacement filters: Make sure replacement filters are readily available and within your budget. Look for filters that last at least 12 months. However if you are severely affected by the dust, you may want to consider keeping a few filters on hand as they can become clogged more quickly that under normal circumstances.

Products like the Honeywell HPA300 (around $225), Coway AP-1512HH (around $200), and Levoit LV-PUR131 (around $180) are examples of air purifiers that meet these criteria. The Coway Airmega 400S (around $650) is an advanced air purifier that offers a multistage filtration process including a washable pre-filter, activated carbon filter, and a True HEPA filter.

The Alen BreatheSmart series offers advanced features such as the customizable HEPA filter option, where customers can choose among four different filter types depending on their needs. The HEPA-Silver option is designed for allergy and asthma sufferers and is effective against dust and allergens. Also, their Smart Sensor technology adjusts purifying power based on the amount of pollutants in the air, which can be useful during Saharan dust storms.

Maintaining your air purifier during periods of Saharan dust storms involves a few key steps:

  1. Regularly check and replace filters: Increased dust can cause filters to fill up more quickly. Regularly inspect them and replace as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
  2. Ensure optimal placement: Make sure the purifier is not blocked by furniture or other objects, which could hamper air intake.
  3. Run the air purifier continuously: During a dust event, it’s more effective to keep the air purifier running continuously, if possible.
  4. Ensure you have the right size air purifier for your room size: Select air purifiers where their maximum coverage is twice your room size. This will allow you to run your air purifier on speeds 1 or 2 to sufficiently cover your room size.  Too often, customers purchase units that are rated at maximum speed and coverage but are too noisy for everyday use.

Remember, a well-maintained air purifier operates more effectively and lasts longer.


Air purifiers, especially those equipped with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, can play a significant role in safeguarding indoor air quality during these dust storms. We examined several key features to look for in an air purifier, including filter type, Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR), size, noise level, and the cost of replacement filters. Specific brands and models were highlighted, and the importance of regular maintenance during Saharan dust storms was emphasized.

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