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Satellites are important tools for tracking and studying aerosol particles in the atmosphere made of dust. These particles can not only affect human health and safety, but can also affect the weather and climate by cooling or warming the Earth as well as enhancing or preventing cloud formation.

Additionally, dust can be a source of nutrients for both continental and maritime ecosystems. For example, dust from the Sahara desert is believed to help fertilize the Amazon rainforest across the Atlantic, and minerals such as iron and phosphorus are known to benefit marine biomass production in parts of the oceans lacking these elements. Despite this, dust can also damage crops and increase soil erosion as well as impact irrigation canals, transportation routes, water quality, and solar power output. Thus, it is important to know where dust is moving to and where it may settle. 

Since dust is composed of mineral particles that absorb and reflect light and that may remain suspended for days or even weeks in the air, it can be detected by satellites monitoring the planet. However, sometimes it is difficult to differentiate dust from other things such as clouds, smoke, and darkness in satellite imagery. Luckily, scientists have discovered that by combining different satellite channels in various ways, the resulting RGB imagery products make the dust stand out in false-color. Some examples of these imagery products include the Dust RGB product and the Dynamic Enhancement Background Reduction (DEBRA)-Dust.

GOES East satellite imagery of dust from the Saharan Air Layer over the Atlantic Ocean and Canary Islands
NOAA’s GOES East satellite captured dust from the Saharan Air Layer (SAL) as it wafted its way over the Atlantic Ocean and Canary Islands on Feb. 16, 2021. This is Dust RGB multispectral imagery, which displays dust as a vivid pink color to help it stand out on satellite.
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A large dust cloud appears pink in this false-color dust imagery as it blows over Oklahoma.
On June 9, 2020, NOAA’s GOES-East satellite viewed as a large dust cloud blew over the landscape of Oklahoma (pink shading). According to the Tulsa NWS office, the dust was the result of strong winds from a dry line pushing across the state.
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Storm System Kicks Up Dust and Sand from Gobi Desert
Satellite imagery allow us to see where smoke plumes from fires are, and also allows us to see how a fire is growing and moving as well as the temperature that it is burning. Imagery also can show us burn scars, areas that have been burned by fire.
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NOAA’s GOES East viewed a dust storm that blew across North Texas with sustained winds of 30-40 mph
On Jan. 30, 2021, NOAA’s GOES East viewed a dust storm that blew across North Texas. With sustained winds of 30-40 mph, the dust was fast and thick enough to disrupt visibility for drivers as well as create poor air quality for pedestrians.
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