On Earth, there couldn’t be a bigger difference between the Amazon rainforest and the African Sahara. The latter is a brown streak of wasteland; the former, green and teeming with life. Polar opposites though they may be, the Amazon and the Sahara have a symbiotic relationship: the nutrients of desert dust blow across the Atlantic and feed the rainforest. This process is normally invisible to the eye, but NASA has visualized it in three-dimensions in a beautiful video.
To show how clouds of dust blow across the Atlantic, scientists at the Godard Flight Center tracked dust from the Bodélé Depression in Chad, an ancient lake bed containing rock minerals composed of dead microorganisms. And those dead microorganisms? They’re loaded with phosphorous, an essential nutrient for plant growth; the lush Amazon rainforest can’t get enough of it. Phosphorous is much rarer in the soils of the Amazon than in the desert, but because winds dump approximately 22,000 tons of phosphorous-rich dust on the Amazon every year, the rainforest’s supply is constantly replenished.
The dust visualization was derived from data collected from 2007 through 2013 by NASA’s Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation satellite, or CALYPSO. CALYPSO sent out constant pulses of light that refracted off dust particles in the atmosphere, then back to the satellite. Twenty-two thousand tons of dust might sound huge, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared with how much dust the winds of the Sahara actually actually pick up: an average of 182 million tons, which is the equivalent of nearly 690,000 semi-trucks filled with dust.
If you needed another reminder of how small the world is, here you go. Everything is connected. Read more about NASA’s work tracking atmospheric dust here.