'Hazardous' Sahara dust blankets the Caribbean

Experts label event a 'Godzilla dust cloud' as air quality falls across most of the region

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A vast cloud of dust from the Sahara is blanketing the Caribbean as it heads to the US with a size and concentration that experts say has not 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 if they have one.

“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.”

Many health specialists were concerned about those battling respiratory symptoms tied to Covid-19.

Mr 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.

A vast cloud of Sahara dust is blanketing the city of San Juan, Puerto Rico on June 22, 2020. An expansive plume of dust from the Sahara is traveling westward across the Atlantic Ocean and is expected to reach the Caribbean and parts of the United States later this week. / AFP / Ricardo ARDUENGO

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 US National Weather Service in San Juan, Puerto Rico, said the worst days for the US territory would be Monday and Tuesday as the plume travels toward the US southeast coast. The main international airport in San Juan said visibility was down to eight kilometres.

The mass of extremely dry and dusty air 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 autumn, peaking in late June to mid-August, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It can occupy a roughly two-mile thick layer in the atmosphere, the agency said.

Mr Alamo said a small tropical wave headed to the Caribbean was expected to alleviate conditions by Thursday.