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Sahara Dust: 7 Things You Didn't Know About This Curious Weather Phenomenon

02/04/2014 10:21 BST | Updated 02/04/2014 10:59 BST

It sounds impossibly exotic but Sahara Dust entered our consciousness and airspace this week – via a fine dusting of sand on the nation’s vehicles.

The muck – a deposit of dust and sand all the way from the deserts of North Africa – arrived via high level winds and was then washed out of the atmosphere in the rain.

It is a curious phenomenon and a mild inconvenience to some - but here are seven other facts you might not have know about Sahara dust.

sahara dust london

Some cars across Britain were left coated in a thin film of dust

1. It causes air pollution spikes, with Environment department Defra warning of "very high" levels in some parts of the country. These surges could reach eight or nine on the 10-point scale on Wednesday, it warned.

2. The fine dust can trigger hayfever-like symptoms and cause existing respiratory problems to flare up, prompting a warning to those with lung or heart disease to avoid strenuous exercise outside. Asthma sufferers have been told to use their inhalers more often.

3. Despite the negatives, the dust, which is essentially lakebed sediment, also acts as a fertiliser and has supplied plant nutrients to the Amazon.

Dust from the Bodélé depression – the site of a once massive lake in Chad – blown into the Amazon was found to have provided essential fertilizer for the jungles in the south American region and is believed to compensate for poor rainforest soils, Nature.com reveals.

bodélé depression

The Bodélé depression is the site of a once massive lake in Chad

4. As well as enriching dry land, Saharan dust has been found to help sustain life over extensive regions of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool found the dust storms help distribute nutrients including phosphorus and nitrogen to phytoplankton in areas of low nutrient levels, Science Daily reports.

5. But while Saharan dust can be beneficial to the oceans – it has also been found to coincide with coral declines in the Caribbean islands, state findings from Nasa.

coral decline

Saharan dust has been found to coincide with coral declines (file picture)

6. Another positive benefit is that Saharan dust clouds can reduce the chances of hurricane formation.

The dust can act as a shield and block sunlight from reaching the sea surface – in some cases reducing the temperature by 1 degree Celsius. This has important consequences for hurricane and tropical cyclone formations, which are very sensitive to sea surface temperatures, Climate and Geohazards writes. Last year a cloud of Saharan dust blowing towards the Caribbean was found to be blocking the development of tropical storms as it travelled, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

7. Bacteria, spores of fungi and pollen grains are present among the dust particles and in livestock populations and dust storms have been identified as possible foot-and-mouth disease virus outbreaks that have occurred in Japan and Korea. The US National Library of Medicine adds: “Evidence of regional (European) airborne transmission of foot-and-mouth disease virus to downwind locations within the United Kingdom, from France across the English Channel to the United Kingdom and from Germany over the Baltic Sea to Denmark, has been well documented.”

Incredible dust storms from around the world

Incredible dust storms from around the world