Saharan dust storms rolling over Valley in waves

HARLINGEN — In the Caribbean, they’re calling it the “Godzilla dust cloud.”

The yellow-brown haze enveloping the Rio Grande Valley, causing respiratory distress among some residents and limiting visibility in places to a mile or two, is one of the biggest Saharan Air Layer dust storms in the past few decades.

“It’s not uncommon for Sahara dust to make it all the way into the gulf and over our area,” Chris Birchfield, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Brownsville, said Sunday. “I would say it happens fairly often. But this is one of the stronger events and also it’s really been picked up in the media lately so more people are becoming aware of it.”

The Saharan Air Layer is a mass of dry air which vacuums up dust and other particulates over North Africa’s 3.6-million square mile Sahara Desert. Prevailing winds then drive the cloud west across the Atlantic.

It’s not an uncommon occurrence in late spring and summer, or even early fall, but this year’s version is a doozy. Residents of the Caribbean, who experience these more often than those living on the U.S. mainland, say it’s the worst in memory.

And the haze may be with us for a while, Birchfield said.

“We’re improved somewhat today and tomorrow, but there’s another swathe moving across the Caribbean right now and, looking at the model it shows in a few days, more toward the end of the week, we could see another swathe of it moving across our area,” Birchfield said. “It really doesn’t completely go away in the next few days but it’s a lot smaller of a concentration now into tomorrow, but it looks like maybe Tuesday through Thursday, it may be a little more of an increase.”

In fact, Birchfield said, there’s even a third wave coming in behind the first two and it could hit the Valley by the weekend, depending on the prevailing winds.

“I just want to mention, because I’ve seen some articles mentioning similar symptoms with COVID, but it’s really nothing to be really scared about,” Birchfield said. “It’s just if you’re in one of those sensitive respiratory groups, you need to take more precautions and don’t exert yourself outdoors as often as maybe you do without this air and dust going across the area.”

As of Sunday, the dust was hitting northern South America, Central America and up through eastern Mexico and as far north as Oklahoma and Arkansas.

In Texas, it covers every section of the state with the exception of the Panhandle and far West Texas.

The dust-up the Rio Grande Valley is experiencing is only going to make things more miserable this week as temperatures are forecast to soar as well.

Highs this week will range from the mid-90s along the coast to temps in the 100s farther up the Valley. On Thursday and Friday, the forecast for inland regions is for highs reaching 104 or 105.