A continent-sized cloud of hot air and dust originating from the Sahara Desert crossed the Atlantic Ocean and headed towards Florida and the Caribbean. A Saharan Air Layer, or SAL, forms when dry air and dust rise from Africa's west coast and ride the trade winds above the Atlantic Ocean.
These dust clouds are not uncommon, especially during the months of July and August. They start when weather patterns called tropical waves pick up dust from the desert in North Africa, carry it a couple of miles into the atmosphere and drift westward.
In a sequence of images created by data acquired by the Earth-orbiting Atmospheric Infrared Sounder ranging from July 15 through July 24, we see the distribution of the cloud in the atmosphere as it swirls off of Africa and heads across the ocean to the west. Using the unique silicate spectral signatures of dust in the thermal infrared, AIRS can detect the presence of dust in the atmosphere day or night. This detection works best if there are no clouds present on top of the dust; when clouds are present, they can interfere with the signal, making it much harder to detect dust as in the case of July 24, 2005.
More information about AIRS can be found at airs.jpl.nasa.gov.