Saharan dust plume charging observed over the UK

R Giles Harrison, Kerianne Nicoll, Graeme J. Marlton, Claire L. Ryder, A. J. Bennett

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A plume of Saharan dust and Iberian smoke was carried across the southern UK on 16th October 2017, entrained into an Atlantic cyclone which had originated as Hurricane Ophelia. The dust plume aloft was widely noticed as it was sufficiently dense to redden the visual appearance of the sun. Time series of backscatter from ceilometers at Reading and Chilbolton show two plumes: one carried upwards to 2.5 km, and another below 800 m into the boundary layer, with a clear slot between. Steady descent of particles at about 50 cm s -1 continued throughout the morning, and coarse mode particles reached the surface. Plumes containing dust are frequently observed to be strongly charged, often through frictional effects. This plume passed over atmospheric electric field sensors at Bristol, Chilbolton and Reading. Consistent measurements at these three sites indicated negative plume charge. The lower edge plume charge density was (-8.0 ± 3.3) nC m -2, which is several times greater than that typical for stratiform water clouds, implying an active in situ charge generation mechanism such as turbulent triboelectrification. A meteorological radiosonde measuring temperature and humidity was launched into the plume at 1412 UTC, specially instrumented with charge and turbulence sensors. This detected charge in the boundary layer and in the upper plume region, and strong turbulent mixing was observed throughout the atmosphere's lowest 4 km. The clear slot region, through which particles sedimented, was anomalously dry compared with modelled values, with water clouds forming intermittently in the air beneath. Electrical aspects of dust should be included in numerical models, particularly the charge-related effects on cloud microphysical properties, to accurately represent particle behaviour and transport.

Original languageEnglish
Article number054018
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 4 May 2018


  • dust
  • electrostatics
  • meteorology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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