Bridge of Dust

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You can’t truly appreciate how small our planet is until the effect of its connectedness clogs your sinus and irritates your eyes. In my case, a bridge of dust straddles the South Atlantic to connect two continents—in not salutary ways.

For the past few weeks, what NOAA calls a “coincidence of climatic and meteorological influences” has resulted in sand from Africa’s Sahara desert being whisked across the Atlantic to drop down on the Caribbean, including my home on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

As a result, we’re breathing a fine dust that has many of us sneezing, sniffling, coughing and rubbing our eyes.

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Seen from my Vieques house, a sepia dawn.

The Sahara, almost as big as China, is often battered by strong winds. The heavy sand lifted by the wind drops into the ocean off Africa, but the fine particles are lifted to 15,000 feet or more and carried over 5,000 miles of ocean on trade winds that blow west—the same air current that brings autumn hurricanes. Depending on wind direction, the dust has even been known to fall on London. In Asia, airborne dust on the move from the Gobi Desert is a similar phenomenon.

Around here, we refer to it as Sahara Sand. It leaves a fine layer of rust-colored dust on everything: table tops, kitchen counters, my computer.

Although African dust has been carried out of the Sahara and into the Caribbean and the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, there have been significant changes in the past 40 years: the quantity of dust has increased and its composition has changed.

One longtime Vieques resident notes that the stuff is most likely responsible for the high incidence of childhood asthma in the Caribbean.

“The severity of Saharan dust in the air is a recent phenomenon,” she says. “If I remember, it was traced to the drying up of lake Tanganyika about 40 or 50 years ago. The dust is filled with all kinds of nasty things that make us sick. The reefs, too.”

Scientists have begun testing the toxicity of African dust on Caribbean coral reefs and have found disturbing preliminary results. Two of the pesticides most commonly found in the dust interfere with an important stage in the development of coral.

And the “nasty stuff” that my friend referred to? The St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center identifies it as banned pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls:

All of these contaminants are known to persist in the environment, bioaccumulate, and be toxic to organisms, including humans, at low concentrations. All are known to affect one or more of the following: endocrine, immune, hepatic, neurological, and reproductive systems.

My eyes are tearing as I write this. Perhaps more are yet to be shed over the foul effects this bridge of dust might have on human and marine life in this otherwise paradisical part of the planet. 

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My view on a normal day.

There’s only a single silver lining to the dry, dusty migration of these gritty clouds. NOAA says the dust plays an “important role” in lessening the formation of hurricanes.

In my next blog, "Good Vibrations?"


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  • commented 2015-05-17 16:59:48 -0400
    Arriving back into Vieques from NYC three weeks go, I immediately ran into the same eye/nose/throat difficulties Nancy & Vincent describe … which prompted me to research & write this blog post. I am still tearing, sniffling and living with a sore throat.
  • commented 2015-05-17 16:46:56 -0400
    Peter, Thank you for more information on the Sahara Dust than I have previously known over the years I have lived in Vieques. I live in an air conditioned house and do not see much of it inside, however, my nose has noticed a change and my eyes have felt a little irritated recently. It seems worse this year than in previous years here. Thank you again for the information. Blessings
  • commented 2015-05-17 15:01:35 -0400
    Returning from NYC on April 29th, I flew into it. I was disappointed that I couldn’t see the ocean’s floor from my little plane.

    I was already suffering from Thermal Stress Change (NYC was 40.) Then I got off the plane and into the dust. The next day I was pathetic. Stuffed, sniffling, sneezing, gagging. coughing. mess. Call 911.

    A week later, it still lingers. The Sahara Dust.