Long-range transport of mineral dust in the global atmosphere: impact of African dust on the environment of the southeastern United States

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 Mar 30;96(7):3396-403. doi: 10.1073/pnas.96.7.3396.


Soil dust is a major constituent of airborne particles in the global atmosphere. Dust plumes frequently cover huge areas of the earth; they are one of the most prominent and commonly visible features in satellite imagery. Dust is believed to play a role in many biogeochemical processes, but the importance of dust in these processes is not well understood because of the dearth of information about the global distribution of dust and its physical, chemical, and mineralogical properties. This paper describes some features of the large-scale distribution of dust and identifies some of the geological characteristics of important source areas. The transport of dust from North Africa is presented as an example of possible long-range dust effects, and the impact of African dust on environmental processes in the western North Atlantic and the southeastern United States is assessed. Dust transported over long distances usually has a mass median diameter <10 microm. Small wind-borne soil particles show signs of extensive weathering; consequently, the physical and chemical properties of the particles will greatly depend on the weathering history in the source region and on the subsequent modifications that occur during transit in the atmosphere (typically a period of a week or more). To fully understand the role of dust in the environment and in human health, mineralogists will have to work closely with scientists in other disciplines to characterize the properties of mineral particles as an ensemble and as individual particles especially with regard to surface characteristics.