24 February 2015
By Ellen Gray
What connects Earth’s largest, hottest desert to its largest tropical rainforest?
The Sahara Desert is a near-uninterrupted brown band of sand and scrub across the northern third of Africa. The Amazon rainforest 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.
Scientists have not only used a satellite to measure the volume of dust that makes this trans-Atlantic journey. 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 accepted for publication 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. Yu and colleagues have previously reported 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 rainforest depends on in order to flourish.
Nutrients – the same ones found in commercial fertilizers – are in short supply in Amazonian soils. Instead they are locked up in the plants themselves. Fallen, decomposing leaves and organic matter provide the majority of nutrients, which are rapidly absorbed by plants and trees after entering the soil. But some nutrients, including phosphorus, are washed away by rainfall into streams and rivers, draining from the Amazon basin like a slowly leaking bathtub.
The phosphorus that reaches Amazon soils from Saharan dust, an estimated 22,000 tons (24,250 U.S. tons) per year, is about the same amount as that lost from rain and flooding, Yu said. The finding is part of a bigger research effort to understand the role of dust and aerosols in the environment and on local and global climate.
Dust in the Wind
“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 through 2013.
The data show that wind and weather pick up on average 182 million tons (201 million U.S. 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 2,575 kilometers (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 (146 million U.S. tons) remain in the air, and 27.7 million tons (30.5 million U.S. tons) – enough to fill 104,908 semi trucks – fall to the surface over the Amazon basin. About 43 million tons (47 million U.S. 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. They published their overall dust transport measurements online Jan. 8 in Remote Sensing of the Environment.
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.
The seven-year data record, while too short for looking at long-term trends, is nevertheless very important for understanding how dust and other aerosols behave as they move across the ocean, said Chip Trepte, project scientist for CALIPSO at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, who was not involved in either study.
“We need a record of measurements to understand whether or not there is a fairly robust, fairly consistent pattern to this aerosol transport,” he said.
Looking at the data year by year shows that that pattern is actually highly variable. There was an 86 percent change between the highest amount of dust transported in 2007 and the lowest in 2011, Yu said.
Why so much variation? Scientists believe it has to do with the conditions in the Sahel, the long strip of semi-arid land on the southern border of the Sahara. After comparing the changes in dust transport to a variety of climate factors, the one Yu and his colleagues found a correlation to was the previous year’s Sahel rainfall. When Sahel rainfall increased, the next year’s dust transport was lower.
The mechanism behind the correlation is unknown, Yu said. One possibility is that increased rainfall means more vegetation and less soil exposed to wind erosion in the Sahel. A second, more likely explanation is that the amount of rainfall is related to the circulation of winds, which are what ultimately sweep dust from both the Sahel and Sahara into the upper atmosphere where it can survive the long journey across the ocean.
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.”
— Guest blogger Ellen Gray is a science writer with NASA’s Earth Science News Team. This post also appears on the NASA website.