If you think the air is hazier than usual, you’re right: a massive cloud of dust containing bits of rock, dinosaur fossils and even particles of mummies is floating over the United States. It also contains carbon dioxide, arsenic, sulfur, ozone, flurocarbons and the greenhouse gases that causeglobal warming. “There’s hundreds of tons of dust in it,” says Russ Schnell of NOAA.
The giant cloud formed between April 3 and 7 over two of China’s deserts, the Gobi in Mongolia and the Taklimakan in northwestern China. An Israeli atmospheric scientist who was in China at the time described it as “the most amazing storm I have ever seen.” By April 8, a satellite photo showed a massive sheet of brown color, thinning at one end and spiraling into a low pressure system. As the cloud continued to move east, it began to break into swirling arms, the way milk does in stirred coffee.
It passed over China’s industrial center, picking up pollutants along the way, then crossed the Pacific Ocean, riding the jet stream into the U.S. On April 18, it formed a whitish cloud in the skies over Denver, and has been seen from Canada to Arizona. It has turned the snow in parts of Alaska brownand is now heading for New England.
“At one time, this dust cloud was bigger than Japan,” says Gene Feldman, of NASA.
“I’ve been studying dust since 1965 and I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Joseph Prospero of the University of Miami.
“We had the same kind of haze when Mount St. Helen’s erupted, but the particulate didn’t come down to the ground level as much,” says Lee Cassin, director of Aspen’s environmental health department.
“From an immediate public health perspective, there’s not much of a concern,” according to Chris Dann of the Colorado Dept. of Health and Environment. “It’s pretty ugly, but it’s not all that serious. Being around someone smoking a cigarette has about the same effect.” He did say that people with respiratory problems should try to remain indoors with thewindows shut until the dust clears.
Hannah Holmes, who is writing a book about dust, finds the substance fascinating because, over time, it spreads everything everywhere. Creatures have been dying in the Gobi desert for millennia and the sharp winds there constantly dig up their bones and spread them to far off lands. “Maybe a bit of Ghengis Khan is flying overhead,” she says.
Russ Schnell has another point of view. “This storm is a godsend to pollution researchers,” he says. “People are finally realizing what we have been saying for years is true. Pollution from Asia is being carried acrossthe oceans.
“We all live in someone’s sewer,” he adds. “As China’s economy and manufacturing increases, we’ll have more of these events.”
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