A 3,500-mile dust cloud nicknamed “Godzilla” has arrived in the United States, Reuters reported. While dust clouds are an annual phenomenon, 2020’s is noted for its size and density. The large cloud is reminiscent of the Dust Bowl.
This year, pollen has a major competitor in the American south, as a gargantuan dust cloud from the Sahara desert has arrived to blanket the southeastern region of the United States.
“The 3,500-mile-long (5,600 km) cloud, dubbed the ‘Godzilla dust cloud,’ traveled 5,000 miles (8,047 km) from North Africa before reaching the region stretching from Florida west into Texas and north into North Carolina through Arkansas,” the Reuters article said. “The Saharan dust plume will hang over the region until the middle of next week, deteriorating the air quality in Texas, Florida, and other states where the number of COVID-19 cases has recently spiked.”
Dust storms are a well-known manifestation of extreme weather. Like heat waves, they’re usually caused by drought. The Dust Bowl was a prime example.
The Road to Dust
Unlike most meteorological disasters, the phenomenon that came to be known as the Dust Bowl was partially man-made.
“As the United States pushed westward and populated western states, there were several government plans that aided in the settlement,” said Professor Eric R. Snodgrass, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. “One of the most historically impactful plans was the Homestead Act. Essentially, the government was giving away land to settlers in return for farming and taxes.
“The problem was that the farming practices that were used during this time period were rudimentary, and conservation was practically absent.”
According to Professor Snodgrass, the situation worsened from decades of poor land management and bad advice given to farmers of the time. It was widely believed that if farmers tilled their fields immediately after a rainstorm, they could turn over the wet topsoil and store the water a few inches below the surface. Instead, this tilling broke the soil down into smaller and smaller chunks until it resembled a fine dust.
Dust to Dust
“When the strong winds of the plains swept over the fields of dry and granulated soil, large dust storms were born,” Professor Snodgrass said. “Two-thirds of the nation was in severe drought; repeated dust storms swept across the land, fueled by the exposed topsoil. They were nicknamed black blizzards.”
Thunderstorm downdrafts caused most of the dust storms. These dry thunderstorms, which would usually bring moisture up and accumulate into rainfall, were so dry that most of the rain evaporated before it hit the ground, compounding the problem.
“The dry downdrafts of these thunderstorms can hit the ground with a great force and spread out horizontally, picking up dust as they go,” Professor Snodgrass said. “Other dust storms are formed as large pressure gradients increased the winds across the plains and formed huge black blizzards. These blizzards of dirt could block out the Sun for hours on end.
“Many people died from black pneumonia due to inhaling so much dirt.”
There’s little concern of black pneumonia specifically with the Godzilla dust cloud. However, with COVID-19 cases spiking, the advent of the added seasonal dust will bring little relief for respiratory health concerns.
Professor Eric R. Snodgrass contributed to this article. Professor Snodgrass is the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, where he also received his master’s degree. Previously, he earned his bachelor’s degree in Geography from Western Illinois University.