How African Dust Storms Create the Caribbean’s Beautiful Beaches—and Protect Them from Hurricanes

Cam Green/Pexels
Cam Green/Pexels

The fertile red soils of Bermuda and the rich coral reefs of the Bahamas are a geological mystery. Both are made up of a specific combination of alien minerals and nutrients not found anywhere on the islands or in the ocean that surrounds them. Scientifically speaking, they should not exist.

But over the last decade, geologists have come up with an explanation for these ecological anomalies: They originated 5000 miles away in Africa. For more than a million years, dust from the Sahara Desert has hitched a ride on westward-traveling winds to the Caribbean. Bermuda and the Bahamas are, quite literally, an extension of the world’s largest desert.

But African dust storms aren’t just responsible for developing Bermuda’s clay-and-iron-abundant “terra rossa” and the coral reefs of the Bahamas; they also play an important role in protecting them from destructive hurricanes. Like atmospheric superheroes, the dust storms’ combination of dry air, strong winds, and cloud-suppressing particles appears to have the ability to stop hurricanes in their tracks.

From Desert to Tropical Paradise

On June 18, 2020, NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite captured this visible image of the large light brown plume of Saharan dust over the North Atlantic Ocean. NASA Worldview // Public Domain

In the summer months, dust storms, some as large as the continental United States, roll off the African coast every three to five days in a dry atmospheric shelf called the Saharan Air Layer. Sometimes they dissipate before they reach the eastern Atlantic. Other times, like in late June and early July 2020, they set sunsets afire from the Caribbean to the southeastern U.S.

The dust blown to Earth by these long-haul storms is packed with soil-enriching nutrients and iron that have completely altered parts of the natural landscape. Bermuda’s endemic dirt and sand is made up of the calcium carbonate leftovers of ancient coral, mollusks, and crustaceans, and the growth of abundant plant matter would be impossible without nutrient deposits from annual African dust storms.

Researchers hypothesize that the Bahamas’s underlying layer of calcium-rich rock and coral reefs wouldn’t have developed without Saharan dust, either—the dust is thought to help cyanobacteria fix nitrogen in the environment, allowing the carbonate layers to accumulate.

Hurricane-Smothering Sands

Climate scientists believe that Saharan dust storms may have an equally important job high above Earth. The summer dust storm season closely coincides with tropical storm and hurricane season, and most of them—around half of all tropical storms and 85 percent of the Atlantic’s most intense hurricanes—originate in Africa.

As they hurtle westward, hurricanes and dust storms mix it up over the Atlantic. But it’s not a fair fight. Hurricanes need humid air to form; dust storms are extremely dry. Hurricanes suck up moisture from the ocean and then release it as rain, while dust prevents moisture from rising into the atmosphere’s higher layers. Dust storms also have "vertical wind shear,” strong embedded winds that can break down a developing hurricane. Essentially, a Saharan dust storm is like a bone-dry, extremely powerful, hurricane-smothering blanket.

As hurricanes increase in frequency and strength alongside warming oceans and a changing climate, understanding exactly how they interact with dust storms may help researchers to identify which Atlantic storms are the most likely to intensify into life-threatening hurricanes. And if climate scientists can recognize the most destructive storms far in advance, those in their path may have a better chance of emerging unscathed when gray skies return to blue.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

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By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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Scientists Come Closer to Understanding COVID-19 'Cytokine Storms'

Science is closer to understanding what prompts severe COVID-19 illness.
Science is closer to understanding what prompts severe COVID-19 illness.
Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexels

Researchers are one step closer to understanding the mechanisms behind "cytokine storms," an immune system reaction that can cause severe COVID-19 symptoms in patients infected with the coronavirus. In a new paper published in the journal Cell, scientists from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital describe their identification of the specific cytokines, or small proteins, that are produced by the body in an effort to fight the virus but sometimes overreact and wind up causing damage, including inflammation, lung injury, and organ failure.

After examining the many different kinds of cytokines in the body, researchers determined that no single cytokine caused this inflammatory response. Instead, it appears to be a combination of two specific cytokines, dubbed tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha and interferon (INF)-gamma, that work in collusion to cause inflammatory cell death.

By identifying these proteins as the culprit, researchers suggested that administering neutralizing antibodies and disrupting the protein pathways that promote cell death might present a new treatment method for COVID-19.

COVID-19 can prompt a "cytokine storm" that can cause severe symptoms.St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

"Understanding the pathways and mechanism driving this inflammation is critical to develop effective treatment strategies," co-author Thirumala-Devi Kanneganti, vice chair of St. Jude's department of immunology, said in a press release. "This research provides that understanding. We also identified the specific cytokines that activate inflammatory cell death pathways and have considerable potential for treatment of COVID-19 and other highly fatal diseases, including sepsis."

Thus far, this theory has only been tested in mice, which received neutralizing antibodies and were protected from severe COVID-19 symptoms. But in isolating the exact cytokines involved, it will likely be easier to locate an effective treatment, either from an existing drug or one developed specifically for the task. In time, researchers hope clinical trials of select drugs can be another tool in the fight against the virus.

[h/t PennLive]