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Dust forecast for the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 6:58 PM GMT on June 20, 2009

There will be less African dust than usual over the tropical Atlantic during this year's hurricane season, according to a new experimental dust forecast issued by Dr. Amato Evan of the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Evan used a statistical model that correlated levels of dust activity in past years with rainfall over the Sahel region of Africa and a natural regional wind pattern known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). He forecasts that dust levels over the Main Development Region (MDR, 8 - 20°N & 15 - 65°W) for Atlantic hurricanes during this year's hurricane season will be similar to last year's below-average levels, thanks in large part to plentiful rains over the Sahel region of Africa during the 2008 rainy season (Figure 1). However, the dust levels expected this year do not approach the record lows seen in 1994 and 2005. Dust forecasts made in May or June are skillful going out five months, with a skill 11 - 16% better than a "no-skill" forecast using climatology.

Figure 1. Rainfall over the Sahel region of Africa was generally 50 - 100 mm (2 - 4 inches) above average during the 2008 rainy season (about 20 - 80% above average). The heavy rains promoted vigorous vegetation growth in 2009, resulting in less bare ground capable of generating dust. Image credit: NOAA/Climate Prediction Center.

The Sahara and the Sahel: significant sources of dust
The summertime dust that affects Atlantic tropical storms originates over the southwestern Sahara (18° - 22° N) and the northwestern Sahel (15° - 18° N) (Figure 2). The dust that originates in the Southwest Sahara stays relatively constant from year to year. However, the dust from the northwestern Sahel varies significantly from year to year, and understanding this variation may be a key factor in improving our forecasts of seasonal hurricane activity in the Atlantic. The amount of dust that gets transported over the Atlantic depends on a mix of three main factors: the large scale and local scale weather patterns (windy weather transports more dust), how wet the current rainy season is (wet weather will wash out dust before it gets transported over the Atlantic), and how dry and drought-damaged the soil is. The level of drought experienced in the northwestern Sahel during the previous year's rainy season (June - October) is the key factor of the three in determining how much dust gets transported over the Atlantic during hurricane season, according to a January 2004 study published in Geophysical Research Letters published by C. Moulin and I. Chiapello. A dry rainy season the previous year will make an expanded area of loose soil which can create dust. It is also possible that the corresponding changes in vegetation can alter the regional weather patterns, causing more dust production.

Figure 2. Map of the mean summer dust optical thickness derived from satellite measurements between 1979 and 2000. Maximum dust amounts originate in the northern Sahel (15° to 18° N) and the Sahara (18° to 22° N). The Bodele depression in Chad is also an active dust source. Image credit: Evidence of the control of summer atmospheric transport of African dust over the Atlantic by Sahel sources from TOMS satellites (1979-2000) by C. Moulin and I. Chiapello, published in January 2004 in Geophysical Research Letters.

How dust suppresses hurricanes
Dust acts as a shield which keeps sunlight from reaching the surface. Thus, large amounts of dust can keep the sea surface temperatures up to 1°C cooler than average in the hurricane Main Development Region (MDR) off the coast of Africa, providing hurricanes with less energy to form and grow. Dust also affects the Saharan Air Layer (SAL), an layer of dry, dusty Saharan air that rides up over the low-level moist air over the tropical Atlantic. At the boundary between the SAL and low-level moist air where the trade winds blow is the trade wind inversion--a region of the atmosphere where the temperature increases with height. Since atmospheric temperature normally decreases with height, this "inversion" acts to but the brakes on any thunderstorms that try to punch through it. This happens because the air in a thunderstorm's updraft suddenly encounters a region where the updraft air is cooler and less buoyant than the surrounding air, and thus will not be able to keep moving upward. The dust in the SAL absorbs solar radiation, which heats the air in the trade wind inversion. This makes the inversion stronger, which inhibits the thunderstorms that power a hurricane. The dust may also act to interfere with the formation of cloud drops and rain drops that these thunderstorms need to grow, but little is known about such effects. It is possible that dust may act to help hurricanes by serving as "condensation nuclei"--centers around which raindrops can form and grow.

For additional reading
Dr. Evan published a study in Science magazine this March showing that 69% of the increase in Atlantic sea surface temperatures over the past 26 years could be attributed to decreases in the amount of dust in the atmosphere.

Jeff Masters


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.