'Godzilla' Sahara dust cloud headed for U.S.; could it make it to Michigan?

Dánica Coto
Associated Press

San Juan, Puerto Rico – A vast cloud of Sahara dust is blanketing the Caribbean as it heads to the U.S. with a size and concentration that experts say hasn’t been seen in half a century.

Air quality across most of the region fell to record “hazardous” levels and experts who nicknamed the event the “Godzilla dust cloud” warned people to stay indoors and use air filters.

“This is the most significant event in the past 50 years,” said Pablo Méndez Lázaro, an environmental health specialist with the University of Puerto Rico. “Conditions are dangerous in many Caribbean islands.”

A satellite photo from NOAA shows a cloud of dust coming from the Sahara desert arriving over the Caribbean on Monday, June 22, 2020. The massive cloud of dust is blanketing the Caribbean as it heads to the U.S. with a size and concentration level that meteorologists say hasn't been seen in roughly half a century.

Many health specialists were concerned about those battling respiratory symptoms tied to COVID-19. Lázaro, who is working with NASA to develop an alert system for the arrival of Sahara dust, said the concentration was so high in recent days that it could even have adverse effects on healthy people.

Extremely hazy conditions and limited visibility were reported from Antigua down to Trinidad & Tobago, with the event expected to last until late Tuesday. Some people posted pictures of themselves on social media wearing double masks to ward off the coronarivus and the dust, while others joked that the Caribbean looked like it had received a yellow filter movie treatment.

José Alamo, a meteorologist with the U.S. National Weather Service in San Juan, Puerto Rico, said the worst days for the U.S. territory would be Monday and Tuesday as the plume travels toward the U.S. southeast coast. The main international airport in San Juan was reporting only 5 miles of visibility.

Sara Pampreen, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service's Detroit office, said that whether the dust reaches Michigan depends on how the wind blows, but that as of Monday it was "not too promising" that it would.

"We could get a little up here," Pampreen said, noting a NASA model that shows the worst of the dust hitting south of Michigan.

NASA's dust aerosol optical thickness model projects that much of the dust will dissipate in the Gulf of Mexico, before reaching land. What remains will hit Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. 

A meteorologist for Toledo's ABC affiliate, 13 ABC (WTVG), said northwest Ohio could see the last remnants over the weekend.

The mass of extremely dry and dusty air is known as the Saharan Air Layer forms over the Sahara Desert and moves across the North Atlantic every three to five days from late spring to early fall, peaking in late June to mid-August, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It can occupy a roughly two-mile thick layer in the atmosphere, the agency said.