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Feature

IS AN ILL WIND A BLOWIN'?

Alex Brylske

It is a sultry August evening in


the Florida Keys as the setting
sun fires the western sky with
colors so stunning that they
defy description. As imbibing
seekers of the green flash look
on, the show soon ends amid
hues of red, pink and orange
that help define these majestic
islands as Americas Caribbean.
As the man in the old beer
commercial used to say, It
just doesnt get any better than
this. But beneath the beauty,
something ominous lurks.
The breathtaking natural light show isnt merely the result of the setting sun reflecting through wisps of
distant clouds. Theres yet another reason, which, ironically, is more evident at midday. During the long
summer season, residents from South Florida to the Caribbean have long endured a visitor from
another continent. Its presence is very subtle except on days when the otherwise crystal-clear
atmosphere is tainted with a reddish-brown haze. That haze as incredible as it may seem is
caused by African dust transported all the way from the Sahara desert.
Some find it hard to believe that the dull haze and spectacular sunset are courtesy of such a global
event, but the evidence is incontrovertible. Almost a century ago scientists surmised this almost
unbelievable journey of African dust to the New World, and modern satellite technology has
documented it. However, what the dust brings isnt just memorable sunsets. Only recently have we
begun to uncover the possible harmful environmental consequences of this long-ranging atmospheric
phenomena. And in doing so, science is learning yet another lesson about how our planet functions,
and how we and everything else are connected.

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Off It Goes Into the Wild Blue Yonder


Imagine approximately 1 billion Volkswagens traversing the
atmosphere each year, says Dale Griffin, a microbiologist with the
U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS). Thats how much dust circulates in
the atmosphere. Every year several hundred million tons of
African dust are transported westward over the Atlantic to South
Florida, the Caribbean and as far south as the Amazon. Stoked by
summer storms, the warm air can lift dust 15,000 feet (4,545 m) or more above the Sahara and out
across the Atlantic.
But as incredible as this may sound, to scientists its not news. They have long known that dust clouds
deposit nutrient-rich soils thousands of miles from their origin. In fact, according to Gene Shinn, senior
geologist with the USGS Center for Coastal Geology in St. Petersburg, Florida, African dust supports the
robust bromeliad (air plant) ecosystem high in the tree canopy of the Amazon rain forest. And Shinn
should know. He was the first person to recognize the possible environmental consequences of the
African dust storms on coral reefs. The ecosystem in the tree canopy [of the Amazon], says Shinn, is
based on [Africas] red soil and includes various bugs and worms. During severe storm events, even
live African grasshoppers have survived the several-thousand-mile flight. Furthermore, the process of
dust transport isnt unique to the Caribbean. Studies have proven that essential nutrients in Hawaiian
rain forests are transported as dust from Asia; and dust originating from central China reaches the
American Midwest. (For a fascinating look at the phenomenon in the Pacific, see the Web site reference
in the sidebar.)
While dust storms have been transporting soil around the Earth since time immemorial, whats new is
their increasing magnitude, especially the African storms. These have been triggered by events of the
last 30 years. Starting in the 1970s, long-term droughts, poverty brought on by warfare, increasing
population and poor agricultural practices led to an unprecedented desertification of a region called the
Sahel. This is a geographic belt that straddles the entire African continent along the southern fringes of
the Sahara desert. In essence, the Sahara has been steadily growing, and the resulting dust has fueled
larger and larger dust storms. We know that the variations in dust concentration measured in the
Caribbean and Western Atlantic correlate with rainfall deficits in North Africa, especially in the Sahel
region, says Dr. Joe Prospero, an atmosphere chemist at the University of Miamis Rosenstiel School of
Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) who studies African dust storms. If the dust is altering the
health of ecosystems, then this could be a significant climate-related effect, he says.

The Puzzle Comes Together


The hypothesis that much of the coral reef decline in the Caribbean could be a result of dust from North
Africa was first championed by Gene Shinn. A highly respected member in the coral reef scientific
community, Shinn is a renowned expert on marine sediments and groundwater movement. During his
40-year career, he has witnessed dramatic changes in coral reefs. Shinn was particularly puzzled by one
question: While its easy to understand how coral reefs near population centers are in decline, why is it
that even remote reefs, nowhere near any human activity, are declining? The usual response from his

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colleagues was increased water temperature due to global warming. But the global warming theory
didnt seem to hold water (sorry for the pun) in all cases, or at least, it wasnt the whole story. There
must be another contributor, Shinn thought.
A major piece of the puzzle fell into place when Shinn learned of the work being done by Joe Prospero.
Beginning in 1965, Prospero measured African dust levels on the island of Barbados, which started
showing dramatic increases around 1970 (See figure 1). Noting, particularly, the peaks occurring in
1983 and 1987, Shinn began to see a pattern. He knew that episodes of coral bleaching began
proliferating in Florida and the Caribbean in the late 1980s and 1990s, with a major event occurring in
the summer of 1987. Furthermore, in 1983 the black spiny sea urchin (Diadema antillarum) was almost
eradicated from the Caribbean by what scientists have attributed to a still-unidentified disease.

A One-Two Punch
While a correlation seems to exist between dust storms and perturbing events on Caribbean coral reefs,
this doesnt answer the question of how dust might be the cause of the reefs woes. As it turns out, the
cause appears to come from two different mechanisms. The first you might be familiar with if you take
multivitamins. Women, in particular, are often advised to take vitamins containing the micronutrient
iron. While plants dont need iron for the same reasons as humans, its nonetheless an important
nutrient to them as well. Scientific experiments have, in fact, documented that enriching the ocean with
iron can result in enormous plankton blooms, demonstrating that low levels of iron may be a limiting
factor in ocean productivity. And guess whats in African dust? You got it; along with other nutrients
such as phosphate, it contains lots of iron.
The working hypothesis is that dust may act as a fertilizer on coral reefs, allowing fleshy algae to grow
much faster than normal. This, combined with the demise of herbivorous reef fish populations due to
overfishing, results in the overgrowth of algae, eventually leading to what scientists call a phase shift
from a coral reef to an algal reef. But the problems caused by the dust isnt just the ability to act as
some superfertilizer; there are also organisms within the dust that can cause disease.

Alien Invaders From the Atmosphere


Beginning in the 1980s, several environmental events occurred that puzzled the scientific community.
These included the demise of Caribbean coral reefs, an increased frequency of red tides, a mass die-off
of frogs throughout Central America, and the accelerated eutrophication (high nutrient input) of
estuaries. Theres even been a dramatic rise of asthma in humans attributed to environmental change.
For reef scientist Shinn, the decline in Caribbean coral reefs was the most striking. Although a disease
called black-band was first reported in Bermuda on brain corals in the 1970s, it didnt become
widespread in other species in the Florida Keys and Caribbean until 1985. Could the African dust theory
help explain this? While the jury is still out, an increasing number of scientists are beginning to take the
once-scoffed-at theory seriously. But in this case, what might be causing the problem isnt iron or any
other inorganic substance. This time the culprits are living creatures microbes that cause disease.

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Disease is also at the center of another intriguing indication that African dust could be wreaking further
environmental havoc. Several years ago divers in Florida began noticing a curious infestation plaguing
sea fans. Tiny lesions began growing like cancer, consuming their host, and leaving behind algalcovered skeletons of what once were healthy sea fans. Once rare, this disease is now quite common
and has decimated sea fan populations, particularly along the southeast Florida coast. (Most recently,
the disease has also been documented in sea whips.) Then, a shocking breakthrough. Garriet Smith, a
researcher at the University of South Carolina, identified the cause of sea fan disease as a soil fungus,
Aspergillus. The puzzling thing was that Aspergillus cannot reproduce in seawater, which meant there
had to be a continuing source of spores to explain the ongoing nature of the disease. Later, Smith and
his colleagues isolated from the dust samples a particular species of fungus, Aspergillus sydowii, which
they used to inoculate healthy sea fans. The result: Fifty percent of the infected sea fans showed signs
of the disease. As Gene Shinn said, So far, thats the best smoking gun we have for proof that
microbes transported in the dust are having a detrimental ecological effect.
Another frightening aspect of the Aspergillus discovery is that the fungus isnt just a problem for sea
fans; its also a source of significant infection in humans. In fact, it accounts for a high portion of
infection-related deaths in hospitals, is a leading cause of death due to lung infection among AIDS
patients, and has even been linked to severe illness in healthy individuals. This finding initially led to
suspicions that Aspergillus was being introduced to the marine environment by the dumping of
biohazardous materials at sea. But the African dust proponents have provided a compelling and much
more plausible theory.
While scientists have known for a long time about the wide-ranging transport of dust in the upper-level
winds, a more recent discovery is that the African dust plumes carry with them a host of tiny,
hitchhiking microbes besides Aspergillus. These include both bacteria and viruses. The potential
worldwide implications for not only marine ecosystems, but also human health, are obvious.
Until recently, microbiologists assumed that during the five- to seven-day trip required for African
microbes to reach North America and the Caribbean, most would be killed by ultraviolet rays in the
upper atmosphere. But, like much of what science originally assumes, this isnt true. Cultures made
from African dust samples taken from the Virgin Islands have been analyzed and have been found to
contain almost 130 different kinds of bacteria and fungi. Most of the dust ends up in south Florida,
where it has spawned red-tinged sunsets for years. Again, said Dr. Dale Griffin, We typically isolate
about two colonies of fungi from clear air samples, whereas we might recover 20 to 40 isolates of fungi
and bacteria from samples taken during dust events.
Exactly how the microbes survive hasnt been fully explained, but Griffin thinks that several
mechanisms are possible. First, the plumes contain not only dust but also lots of smoke from slashand-burn agriculture. This might act to filter some of the ultraviolet light. Additionally, some of the dust
is transported in the lower atmosphere where microbes may not be subjected to ultraviolet radiation at
levels high enough to be lethal. And finally, the microbes may adhere to cracks, crevasses or other
shaded areas of dust particles. However they do it, they arrive alive.

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The (Red) Tide Turns


Hard corals and sea fans arent the only possible victims of the nutrients and microbes carried in
African dust. Theres some pretty clear evidence that the very base of the oceanic food chain can be
affected.
Algal blooms called red tides have plagued coastal areas since biblical times, and one area where the
phenomenon is being studied extensively is in the Gulf of Mexico off Floridas southwest coast. In a
study partially funded by NASA, it has been shown that the African dust clouds may have a connection
with red tides. Using the latest space-based technology, NOAA and NASA satellites can spot dust clouds
en route from Africa to the Americas. As technology improves, many believe that we may someday be
able to not only understand red tides, but predict their occurrence.
Jason Lenes, a graduate student at the University of South Floridas College of Marine Science, has
provided some intriguing evidence to support the dust-cloud theory. In a recent study, Lenes and his
colleagues have shown that African dust clouds can actually fertilize with iron the water off Floridas
west coast. But this was already surmised. More importantly, what Lenes study demonstrates is how
some plantlike bacteria use the iron to initiate a red tide event. Heres how it works: When iron levels
go up, these bacteria, (Trichodesmium) convert free-form nitrogen in the water into a form usable by
other marine life. The addition of this usable nitrogen in the water makes a much better caldron for
toxic algae such as the most notorious red tide organism in Florida, a dinoflagellate called Karenia
breve. This is one of the first studies that quantitatively measured iron from the dust and (linked) it to
red tides through Trichodesmium, said Lenes in a recent interview.
Lenes study examined a dust storm that left Africa on June 17, 1999. Reaching Floridas west coast
around July 1, it increased iron concentrations in the surface water by nearly 300 percent. In turn,
Trichodesmium counts skyrocketed to 10 times their normal concentration. By October, a huge bloom of
toxic red algae (Karenia brevis) formed within the study area (an 8,100-square-mile [21,060-sq-km]
region between Tampa Bay and Fort Myers, Florida).

Human Factors
It would be a mistake to assume that the implications of the African dust phenomenon are limited to
coral reefs or even the ocean. In a clear and frightening example of how all residents of this planet
share a common fate, we humans have as much to be concerned with as any creature of the sea. The
evidence from the Caribbean for dust-born disease is very compelling. For example, levels of asthma on
the islands of Barbados and Trinidad are among the highest in the world. On these two islands alone,
the Caribbean Allergy and Respiratory Association (CARA) has documented a seventeenfold increase in
asthma since 1973. Coincidentally, that was also the first year in which Dr. Prospero saw a spike in his
data from the dust records on Barbados.
Floridians may also be affected. Since 1980, the number of Americans with asthma has increased 154
percent. The Tampa Bay region, near Jason Lenes study site on red tide, has one of the states highest
asthma rates, with 7.1 percent of students now reporting asthma symptoms, compared with 2.7

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percent just four years ago. According to Prosperos work, about half the particles breathed in South
Florida during summer months originate in Africa, says Gene Shinn. The asthma epidemic in areas
that are relatively free of industry correlates with the increased flux of African dust that has been
continuously monitored in Barbados since 1965.
But we should be careful about jumping to conclusions. Not a lot is known about wind-transported
disease, says Prospero. At this point, its a hypothesis that has some supporting evidence. But its a
complicated subject.
Like some heavenly judgment for the hundreds of years shes been plagued by slavery, colonialism and
countless forms of exploitation by the West, Africa may wreak its vengeance before the rest of the
world even realizes somethings wrong. What the future holds, no one knows. As the song says, the
answer is blowin in the wind.

Learn More About Dust Plumes and Their Environmental Effect


African Dust Causes Widespread Environmental Distress,
U.S. Geological Survey Information Sheet, produced April 2000; Web site: http://coastal.er.usgs.gov
/african_dust/
Desert Dust Kills Florida Fish, NASA Science News;
Web site: http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast30aug_1.htm?list85804
The Pacific Dust Express,
NASA Science News;
Web site: http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast17may%5F1.htm
Emerging Marine Diseases
Climate Links and Anthropogenic Factors, Science, 1999, Volume 285, No. 5433, pages 1505-1510,
authors Harvell, C.D., K. Kim, J.M. Burkholder, R.R. Colwell, P.R. Epstein, D.J. Grimes, E.E. Hofman,
E.K. Lipp, A.D.M.E.
Osterhaus, R.M. Overstreet, J.W. Porter, G.W. Smith and G.R. Vasta.
African Dust and the Demise of Caribbean Coral Reefs,
Geophysical Research Letters, 2000,
Volume 27, No. 19, pages 3029-3032, authors Shinn, E.A., G.W. Smith, J.M. Prospero, P. Betzer, M.L.
Hayes, V. Garrison and R.T. Barber.

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