Environment: Making it better wherever you are
You Need Me. I Need You.
Dust is something we humans spend countless hours removing from our living quarters. However, if you were the Amazon forest, you’d hold on to all the dust that comes your way. This week, NASA published a report that tells the story of dust transmission from Africa to the Amazon and why the Amazon welcomes the 27.7 million tons that fall onto the forest each year. The story reveals an interdependency that gives us reason to ponder our own connections with the environment and one another.
Here’s an excerpt from NASA’s report on February 24, 2015:
What connects Earth's largest, hottest desert to its largest tropical rain forest?
The Sahara Desert is a near-uninterrupted brown band of sand and scrub across the northern third of Africa. The Amazon rain forest is a dense green mass of humid jungle that covers northeast South America. But after strong winds sweep across the Sahara, a tan cloud rises in the air, stretches between the continents, and ties together the desert and the jungle. It’s dust. And lots of it.
For the first time, a NASA satellite has quantified in three dimensions how much dust makes this trans-Atlantic journey. Scientists have not only measured the volume of dust, they have also calculated how much phosphorus – remnant in Saharan sands from part of the desert’s past as a lake bed – gets carried across the ocean from one of the planet’s most desolate places to one of its most fertile.
A new paper published Feb. 24 in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, provides the first satellite-based estimate of this phosphorus transport over multiple years, said lead author Hongbin Yu, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Maryland who works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. A paper published online by Yu and colleagues Jan. 8 in Remote Sensing of the Environment provided the first multi-year satellite estimate of overall dust transport from the Sahara to the Amazon.
This trans-continental journey of dust is important because of what is in the dust, Yu said. Specifically the dust picked up from the Bodélé Depression in Chad, an ancient lake bed where rock minerals composed of dead microorganisms are loaded with phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plant proteins and growth, which the Amazon rain forest depends on in order to flourish.
"We know that dust is very important in many ways. It is an essential component of the Earth system. Dust will affect climate and, at the same time, climate change will affect dust," said Yu. To understand what those effects may be, "First we have to try to answer two basic questions. How much dust is transported? And what is the relationship between the amount of dust transport and climate indicators?"
The new dust transport estimates were derived from data collected by a lidar instrument on NASA's Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation, or CALIPSO, satellite from 2007 though 2013.
The data show that wind and weather pick up on average 182 million tons of dust each year and carry it past the western edge of the Sahara at longitude 15W. This volume is the equivalent of 689,290 semi trucks filled with dust. The dust then travels 1,600 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, though some drops to the surface or is flushed from the sky by rain. Near the eastern coast of South America, at longitude 35W, 132 million tons remain in the air, and 27.7 million tons – enough to fill 104,908 semi trucks – fall to the surface over the Amazon basin. About 43 million tons of dust travel farther to settle out over the Caribbean Sea, past longitude 75W.
Yu and colleagues focused on the Saharan dust transport across the Atlantic Ocean to South America and then beyond to the Caribbean Sea because it is the largest transport of dust on the planet.
Dust collected from the Bodélé Depression and from ground stations on Barbados and in Miami give scientists an estimate of the proportion of phosphorus in Saharan dust. This estimate is used to calculate how much phosphorus gets deposited in the Amazon basin from this dust transport.
CALIPSO collects "curtains" of data that show valuable information about the altitude of dust layers in the atmosphere. Knowing the height at which dust travels is important for understanding, and eventually using computers to model, where that dust will go and how the dust will interact with Earth's heat balance and clouds, now and in future climate scenarios.
"Wind currents are different at different altitudes," said Trepte. "This is a step forward in providing the understanding of what dust transport looks like in three dimensions, and then comparing with these models that are being used for climate studies."
Climate studies range in scope from global to regional changes, such as those that may occur in the Amazon in coming years. In addition to dust, the Amazon is home to many other types of aerosols like smoke from fires and biological particles, such as bacteria, fungi, pollen, and spores released by the plants themselves. In the future, Yu and his colleagues plan to explore the effects of those aerosols on local clouds – and how they are influenced by dust from Africa.
"This is a small world," Yu said, "and we're all connected together."