Trinidad and Tobago citizens grabbed their face masks to confront air quality levels designated “Hazardous” and “Unhealthy” by the Environmental Management Authority as a mega-plume of Saharan dust travelled the Atlantic over the weekend. The magnitude of the event left many in disbelief and rushing to share information and post images on social media about what they described as the worst case of Saharan dust that the country has ever experienced.
Such apocalyptic sights may become part of the “new normal” as a study analysing 2,000 years of climate and Saharan dust data has concluded that a warmer earth, caused by climate change, will result in more intense Saharan dust events.
In February 2020, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Maine published findings showing that these extreme and intense dust events will likely get worse as global temperatures increase. Using data obtained from ice cores in the European Alps, the researchers determined that the major cause of higher intensity dust events will be increased drought conditions in North Africa, where most of the Sahara Desert can be found.
As droughts increase, dust becomes more available for pickup and transport across the Atlantic. Some reports and research have already predicted reductions in rainfall in North Africa of up to 20% and increases in temperature of over 2°C by 2050, leading to longer and more severe drought conditions.
However, these climate systems are complex and as oceans get warmer and Saharan Dust deposits cause more sea ice to melt, wind systems may shift resulting in less dust events throughout the year – although the events that do occur will be more intense than before.
A reduction in the number of dust events isn’t all good news though, as the presence of Saharan dust has been shown to reduce the likelihood of hurricanes and similar weather events in the Atlantic. The dust blown across from North Africa is dry and hot and usually helps to reduce cloud formation and suck moisture out of the air, lowering the possibility of tropical waves and hurricanes. Climate models have shown that in a “low dust” Atlantic, up to 27% more hurricanes can form and can last up to one day longer.
Understanding Saharan dust events is of critical importance to development planning for Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean. On one hand, less dust events caused by changing wind patterns will result in more frequent extreme weather events with significant costs to human safety and security.
On the other, more intense dust events can become significant public health issues, even at lower frequencies, as the health impacts of fine particulate matter are well documented through reducing people’s health levels and increasing their risk of death across many different health conditions – from respiratory conditions like asthma to heart attacks and other cardiovascular conditions.
Taking a reactive approach to dealing with dust-related health and weather impacts alone will require substantial financial spending in a region that is already facing an uncertain economic future. The issue of Saharan dust is just another example of why the complex issue of climate change must be given top priority as our countries plan for a post-COVID future.