Friday, November 20, 2009

Dust storms formed in Sahara linked to hurricane activity in Atlantic

Dust storms formed in Sahara linked to hurricane activity in Atlantic

Scientists are trying to understand what's causing the increasing number of more powerful hurricanes from the Atlantic Ocean in the last years. Some see it as part of a natural cycle in which hurricanes get worse for a decade or two before dwindling again.

Recent studies have pointed a potential relationship between warming sea surface temperatures caused by global warming and increases in the strength and number of hurricanes. Recently, a surprising link between a reduced hurricane activity in the Atlantic and thick clouds of dust that periodically rise from the Sahara Desert and blow off Africa's western coast has been noticed. Hurricanes are triggered by heat and moisture, and it seems that dry dust storms repress them before they fully develop.

Three hypothesis were formulated about how sand storms could affect hurricanes: dry air of sand storms could block the rising streams of air needed to increase the hurricane's power; midlevel winds accompanying the Saharan air cause wind cut, preventing rising currents from growing into storms or warmth absorbed by the dust in the air can stabilize the air currents' conditions, blocking rising air.

However, the dust storms could change a hurricane's direction further to the west increasing the possibility that it would reach the United States and Caribbean Islands. "This correlation between dust storms and hurricane activity are especially strong for the past few years," said study leader Amato Evan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"In 2004, we saw an increase in dust activity and a decrease in hurricanes. In 2005, it was the exact opposite," Evan said.

"2005 was the busiest hurricane season on record. It included 26 named storms and 13 hurricanes, including Katrina, hailed as the most destructive U.S. storm ever. Preliminary analyses of this year's dust activity also support the theory," he continued.

The 2006 hurricane season has been weaker than forecasted, and this correlated with a high dust storm earlier in the year. "At the beginning of the year, we saw a lot of dust storms-just really continuous. Then, probably a few weeks ago, when we started seeing some of those hurricanes that were forming up in the Atlantic, we saw a real lack of dust activity," he told.

The dust storms form at the contact between hot, dryer desert air from the Sahara with cooler air from the Sahel (the region at the South of Sahara) to form winds that lift sand and dust into the atmosphere, where they are caught by strong trade winds and blown westward, across the Atlantic Ocean.

Some years, millions of tons of dust clouds that can cross the oceans in as little as five days, being detected in Caribbean and Florida, while in others there are almost no dust storms.

The researchers used satellite images to study the amount of African dust blown out over the Atlantic for the years 1982-2005 and compared that with tropical storm activity. They found an inverse relationship between tropical storms and dust. "While we cannot conclusively demonstrate a direct causal relationship, there appears to be a robust link between tropical cyclone activity and dust transport," they concluded.

"During periods of intense hurricane activity dust was relatively scarce in the atmosphere. In years when stronger dust storms rose up, on the other hand, fewer hurricanes swept through the Atlantic."

"While a great deal of work has focused on the links between [hurricanes] and warming ocean temperatures, this research adds another piece to the puzzle."

"People didn't understand the potential impact of dust until satellites allowed us to see how incredibly expansive these dust storms can be," Evan said in a statement.

"Sometimes during the summer, sunsets in Puerto Rico are beautiful, because of all the dust in the sky - well that dust comes all the way from Africa."

Co-author Jonathan Foley, also of the University of Wisconsin, added: "These findings are important because they show that long-term changes in hurricanes may be related to many different factors."

"What we don't know is whether the dust affects the hurricanes directly, or whether both [dust and hurricanes] are responding to the same large scale atmospheric changes around the tropical Atlantic," says Foley.

"That's what future research needs to find out."


No comments:

Post a Comment

About Me

My photo
If you want to follow new posts on twitter, my user name is TenneyNaumer. Blog on climate science: Climate Change -- The Next Generation, at