One of the driest spots on Earth — the Sahara desert — is increasingly responsible for snow and rain half a world away in the western U.S., a new study released Thursday found.
It's no secret that winds carrying dust, soot and even germs make transcontinental journeys through the upper atmosphere that can affect the weather thousands of miles away. Yet little is known about the impact of foreign pollutants on the West Coast, which relies on mountain snowmelt for its water needs.
Previous studies hinted these jet-setting particles may retard rainfall in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California by reducing the size of water droplets in clouds. But scientists who flew through storm clouds in an aircraft, measured rain and snow and analyzed satellite imagery found the opposite: Far-flung dust and germs can help stimulate precipitation.
During the 2011 winter, a team from the University of California, San Diego and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration traced particles suspended in clouds over the Sierra to distant origins — from the skies over the arid Sahara that later mingled with other pollutants in China and Mongolia before crossing the Pacific.