Global Aerosol and Dust Dynamics – NASA SVS

The main video featured above consists of three interrelated parts produced separately by NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio (SVS) which has been producing highly engaging visualizations based on actual and simulated data about global processes running our planet.

First narrated visualization shows transport of dust from the Africa to South America between 2007-2013 where the Sahara desert is the source and the tropical Amazon basin is the sink. The scale of interaction between the driest and the wettest places on earth is stunning.

The second unnarrated section (embedded separately below) visualizes aerosol emissions and transport from September 1, 2006 to April 10, 2007. Data are color coded as follows: black and organic carbon (green), dust (red-orange), sulfates (white), and sea salt (blue). Locations indicated by red dots are wildfires and human-initiated burning detected by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. The third animation (also embedded at the bottom of this post) shows global tropospheric aerosols between August 17th 2006 and April 10th 2007. Color codes are same as the second animation.

In the first 45 seconds of the animation, fires burning over South America and Africa can be seen emitting large amounts of black carbon into the atmosphere. At the same time, dust from the Sahara and the Middle East is picked up by winds and transported west, where it becomes wrapped up in two tropical cyclones over the Atlantic in early to mid September. Sulfur emissions from Europe, Asia, and North America are also pulled into the flow and advected eastward and poleward, and are occasionally pulled into cyclones. Mount Nyiragongo, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, continuously erupts throughout the animations. The Tibetan Plateau is like an obstacle course against the westerly winds that have swept across the Gobi desert in Asia and picked up dust.

NASA Global Dust and Aerosol Simulation from Nature Documentaries on Vimeo.

After 45 seconds into the simulation, fires in Indonesia intensify and emit large amounts of black carbon into the atmosphere in October and November. This corresponds to reduction of biomass burning in South America hidden on the other side of our planet. At the same time, several strong cyclones in the western Pacific can be seen lifting sea salt aerosols and entraining dust, sulfates, and black carbon. In December, fires in southeastern Australia ignite and emit black carbon that mixes with dust from the Australian deserts. These aerosols then get drawn into the westerlies of the southern hemisphere. Aerosol travel around the Antarctica in southern mid-to-high latitudes. Undisturbed by land, the aerosols interact with the polar easterlies to form large cyclones that can easily be seen in the distribution of sea salt aerosols. Simultaneous with Australian fires biomass burning in Africa intensifies (not visible in visualization).

At 1 minute 45 seconds into the visualization (January 2007), the eruption of the Karthala volcano on Grand Comore Island off Africa’s eastern coast can be seen. The eruption began on January 12 and lasted for a few days. The sulfate aerosols disperse, mixing with the emissions from biomass burning in central Africa, and are pulled in two directions by opposing wind belts. By February, sulfate emissions from Mount Karthala decreases, but dust and black carbon continue to drift off the Africa and make their way to the Americas or to Europe.

In North America, (at around after 2 minutes into the visualization) winter weather systems can be periodically seen spinning up over the center of the continent and pushing sulfate emissions as well as advected dust, black carbon, and sea salt aerosols away from the landmass into the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.

Later in February, biomass burning in Thailand and neighboring countries increases. Black carbon emissions quickly mix with dust from the Middle East and the Gobi and with sulfates from industry in China. These aerosols are then transported eastward, are pulled into mid-latitude cyclones that churn up sea salt, and eventually cross the Pacific to reach North America.

The third animation shows the emission and transport of tropospheric aerosols from August 17, 2006 to April 10, 2007. Aerosol optical thickness of black and organic carbon (green), dust (red-orange), sulfates (white), and sea salt (blue) from a 10 km resolution GEOS-5 “nature run which can predict magnitude of Atlantic hurricanes. Understanding of global aerosol dynamics will help how clouds form at different altitudes and contribute to the heat balance of the Earth.



  1. T. says:

    Nice vid! I wonder one measure the saharan dust transported to black sea!
    It is speculated that part of the anchovy biomass in the black sea is explained by the Saharan dust input. Anyone knows any scientific support for this? How one would actually measure the relation?

    • Uzay Sezen says:

      That’s most certainly a very good point. Iron dust is known to boost phytoplankton growth and would definitely cascade into planktonivore anchovies of the Black Sea. Dust from Northern Africa is known to travel all the way up into Ukraine and can fertilize Black Sea as well.

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