The editorial note inserted in last Sunday’s piece (“Texas, Heat, Malaria, Mosquitoes”) triggered some questions that focused on the Sahara dust cloud. Hat tip to Cumberland’s Norm Dempsey for getting that note into the piece at the last minute.
Some of those questions were specifically directed at the impact on Florida, and other questions focused on the surrounding Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean ecosystem.
To help answer the questions, we are fortunate to be able to share a guest column on this subject for this Sunday. Bob Bunting is the CEO of the Climate Adaptation Center and is a multi-decade expert with phenomenal credentials. He and I discussed the the multi-dimensional characteristics of Sahara dust as well as the details of the impact on Florida. Over our lunch, we also discussed some highlights of his career including the original climate and global warming forecast models that date back to his use of a Cray Supercomputer in the 1980s. Those models caught the attention of President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she made a state visit to the US. Bob was part of the delegation who ensured the Prime Minister understood the early climate predictions that have now come to pass more than 30 years later.
Bob is an enormous wealth of information and offers this explanation below in this special Sunday guest column. We thank Bob for his help in answering questions.
Sahara Dust – A Tale of Two Outcomes
By Bob Bunting
Last hurricane season, the one that spawned Hurricane Ian, was one where July and August had no tropical storms. This is a rare event in the world of previously very rare climate events that are now becoming common in the age of climate warming. Still, 2022 had 14 named storms, exactly the number the Climate Adaptation Center (CAC) is predicting for this year.
Right on time, the Sahara Desert with its strong easterly winds is pumping large clouds of dust into the Atlantic again. After a fast, unusually early start to this year’s storm season, these clouds of dust and abundant dry desert air will hinder storm activity for the next several weeks. Although we have weak tropical storm, Don, in the central Atlantic, the storm lull will continue until late July and perhaps into August. Two named storms in the Tropical Atlantic in June formed off the African Coast over record warm seawater. That has never happened before in recorded history! That preceded the dust cloud.
We breathe a sigh of relief! So let’s enjoy the lull while it lasts because those record warm sea temperatures are so widespread that conditions will be explosive when the dust settles. Once that happens, the battle between hot ocean waters in the Atlantic hurricane formation area (AHFA) and the newly formed El Niño in the Pacific will resume. El Niños create wind shear in the AHFA and tend to tamp down hurricane development. If it were not for this fact, I would be predicting 25 storms this year!
But what about all that dust? Let’s look at the GOES satellite image.
Note the blue circles. It’s easy to see the dust clouds. There’s just a bit of dust over Florida now, but more is on the way as the two additional large dust-storm clouds travel west from Africa to the Southeast US. The dust isn’t all good. It is loaded with iron from what used to be a large inland lake called Lake Chad. The lake is drying up because of a warming climate and too much water use, creating serious water scarcity. The lake bottom is now exposed, and the sand there has very high iron content.
As clouds of dust move east and perhaps into the Gulf of Mexico, the iron falls out into the waters where Trichodesmium, a blue-green algae, lurks. It turns out that these algae love iron and feed on it and while doing so help to convert nitrogen stores into what we call bioavailable nitrogen. When bioavailable nitrogen is abundant, red tide can become a serious issue. Red tide is another kind of algae, called Karenia brevis (KB). We know that red tide kills lots of sea life and is toxic to human beings. If that is not bad enough, the dust clouds also lower air quality and can cause respiratory irritations too.
Perhaps the way to look at this isn’t a balance between good and bad but the realization that climate change impacts weather events, and we cannot hide from them. They know no boundary, and that is precisely why we all must work as individuals, cities, states, and countries to slow down the rate of climate warming. Our planet is small and unique, and it is very delicate.
I invite you to learn all about the CAC and to please join us in leading from our regional and local levels to lower the risk of climate change-induced events, like Hurricane Ian’s impacts, in our backyards. Learn more and join us here.
Bob Bunting is a climate scientist and CEO of the Climate Adaptation Center (CAC), an independent, nonprofit organization headquartered in Sarasota, Florida, that is bridging the gap between state of the art scientific research and public-sector understanding of our changing climate. As indicated in their name, they also offer ideas and strategies to deal with the warmer climate that is already here. I strongly support the CAC’s work, and I encourage you to do the same.
We thank Bob again for his words of wisdom. And here’s a closing note on another impact of climate change which those of us in Sarasota, Florida are now familiar with: “Experts say climate change likely to increase US malaria cases,” https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jul/06/malaria-us-mosquitoes-climate-crisis
If you’re interested in how climate change, robotics, and entrepreneurship intersect, continue on below and explore the potential of an inexpensive home-built robot from Tampa, Florida that was just showcased over the weekend in San Francisco at the Open Sauce conference sponsored by Silicon Valley's YouTube and others.
The Climate Adaptation Center's "Climate Economy" initiative is built around the encouragement and sharing of ideas relating to entrepreneurship and tackling climate related problems. Inventors and entrepreneurs may take inspiration from some of the ideas that follow and deliver win-win scenarios where businesses and the environment both benefit. (See the CAC website, "What is the Climate Economy?" https://www.theclimateadaptationcenter.org/science/)
Let's start with adapting the rolling robot's machine learning code (Watch here: https://youtu.be/Iu9HbUlvaUk) to work in UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). Of course we've all seen plenty of operator driven UAVs in Ukraine remotely dropping munitions on both Russians and Ukrainians. How about a pivot to autonomous peacetime applications that pursue the potential of the Climate Economy?
That same paint gun marking up trespassers and porch pirates around consumer homes could instead be affixed to rescue robots, marking with paint the ground and trees in a disaster area for rescue workers. Robots could be programmed to identify survivors, perhaps in a heavily wooded, difficult to access area. This after being dropped into forest clearings by flying companion robots so any ground-based robots can start their operation quicker and with less initial fuel drain. If let loose near forest fires, they could identify new and existing fire-flashpoints or be tasked to replenish oxygen tanks and other equipment for firemen. Could this help Canada?
How about using large UAVs in teams to correctly identify people injured or unconscious and subsequently extract them? The technology exists today for UAVs to carry 150lbs or more so a pair of these might airlift people to safety. How about robots released in the arctic to help identify and track animals that are facing a loss of habitat and need relocation? Or robots patrolling a site where illegal dumping is a problem?
A robust UUV (Unmanned Underwater Vehicle) might survey the sea floor looking for leaky oil wells or even new sources of energy. Could we capture and sequester methane bubbling up from the ocean and neutralize that greenhouse gas? The opportunities to leverage these machines would seem near endless.
Do you have an application in mind for this growing field of technology? The world is listening.
Send us your thoughts about anything we've covered today or feel free to reach out to Bob at the Climate Adaptation Center with questions or comments: [email protected]
Thank you for joining us and have a pleasant rest of your Sunday.
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