NASA image Hurrican Ophelia
© NASA
Hurricane Ophelia (its core appears here as a white dot at the lower right) dragged in dust from the Sahara and smoke from wildfires in Portugal as the storm spun northeast toward Ireland in October 2017.
Supercomputers and advanced physics made the stunning new simulation possible

How do you observe the invisible currents of the atmosphere? By studying the swirling, billowing loads of sand, sea salt and smoke that winds carry. A new simulation created by scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., reveals just how far around the globe such aerosol particles can fly on the wind.

The complex new simulation , powered by supercomputers, uses advanced physics and a state-of-the-art climate algorithm known as FV3 to represent in high resolution the physical interactions of aerosols with storms or other weather patterns on a global scale (SN Online: 9/21/17). Using data collected from NASA's Earth-observing satellites, the simulation tracked how air currents swept aerosols around the planet from August 1, 2017, through November 1, 2017.


In the animation, sea salt (in blue) snagged by winds sweeping across the ocean's surface becomes entrained in hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, revealing their deadly paths. Wisps of smoke (in gray) from fires in the U.S. Pacific Northwest drift toward the eastern United States, while Saharan dust (in brown) billows westward across the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. And the visualization shows how Hurricane Ophelia formed off the coast of Africa, pulling in both Saharan dust and smoke from Portugal's wildfires and transporting the particles to Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Carolyn Gramling is the Earth & Climate writer at Science News. Previously she worked at Science magazine for six years, both as a reporter covering paleontology and polar science and as the editor of the news in brief section. Before that she was a reporter and editor at EARTH magazine. She has bachelor's degrees in Geology and European History and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT.