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Friday, December 08, 2006

Dust...Out of Africa

As their DC-8 flew into a tropical storm off the coast of West Africa, Aaron Pratt and Tamara Battle realized their lifelong dream--to study storms and weather systems at their source. During that flight, lightning struck their plane. The resulting storm turned into a tropical depression, ultimately known as Hurricane Helene, one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes of 2006.

Pratt and Battle were thrilled. They, along with Stephen Chan, Amber Reynolds, Daniel Robertson and Deanne Grant, spent a month conducting weather research in Senegal and Cape Verde, West Africa. The students worked with scientists from universities and government agencies to study how land storms become ocean storms and then make their way west to U.S. and Caribbean waters.

"African dust is very critical for hurricane formation. One of our flights allowed us to see the dust kicked up in the Sahara Desert," said Pratt, a doctorate candidate in atmospheric science from Howard University. "I had never done research overseas before and didn't know what to expect. Working with scientists in both Senegal and Cape Verde helped put our research in the proper perspective."

Battle is also a doctoral candidate in atmospheric science at Howard University. "When we flew over the Sahara Desert, it was serene and beautifully simple," she said. "Africa's easterly waves and Saharan dust storms not only impact the weather in the United States and the Caribbean, but they also have implications for the inhabitants of many African countries. By sharing what we've learned, we increase the chances of helping those countries improve forecasting and predictability. That will have a positive impact on the agriculture and economy of the region."

The flights originated in Cape Verde, looking at easterly waves which, develop tropical cyclones, Saharan dust outbreaks, convection and cloud microphysics. In Senegal, the students used advanced equipment to track precipitation, predict rainfall and measure air pressure.

The students plan to present their project overview and initial findings at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in January 2007.

The students' research was funded by NSF's Office of International Science and Engineering and the Division of Atmospheric Sciences.

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