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What You Don't Know About Duststorms and Sandstorms

When people talk about storms, they often talk about hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, thunderstorms, rainstorms, and snowstorms. Few people talk about dust storms or sandstorms. In a way, that is understandable since if a person doesn’t live in a place where they occur, they may not know much about them.

In many places, dust storms and sandstorms are common, occurring almost every year. Many people know that haboobs, very intense thunderstorm generated dust storms, often happen in Arabia and the middle east. Some of these can be enormous.

However, did you know that an average of one to three dust storms occurs in Phoenix, Arizona every year? Africa, Australia, and New Zealand have all been impacted by dust storms.

Dust storms can force large amounts of dust high into the atmosphere, to altitudes of 10,000 feet, allowing the dust to travel considerable distances before it finally settles. Mysterious ‘red snowfalls’ in the northeast US have been explained when it has been noted that severe dust storms happened over the Sahara. The red pigmentation of the snow was actually from the red dust from the Sahara that the snow formed around.

In fact, the famous red soil of Bermuda didn’t originate in Bermuda. All of it was blown across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa.

Dust storms carry more than just dust, too. During the major dust storm that hit the US in 1935 and called the Dust Bowl, Kansas had a measles epidemic that was severe. Infant mortality skyrocketed and strep throat became common. These have been linked to the dust storm.

There is a difference between a sandstorm and a dust storm, though. As a rule, the larger the particles, the lower to the ground they move and the shorter the distance that they travel. Sand is much larger than dust, so in a typical sandstorm, the sand rarely moves more than four feet above the surface. That means that an average adult standing up will have their heads above most of a sandstorm.

However, sand, blown by strong winds, is tremendously abrasive. This makes it dangerous to exposed skin and other surfaces. The winds in a sandstorm may reach 100 miles an hour, which is enough to blast the paint off of a vehicle or the skin off of a person.

Since dust is finer, the biggest danger is in trying to breathe during the dust storm without a mask. The lungs can become filled with the dust-filled air and this is life-threatening.

People often don’t think about dust storms and sandstorms unless they live in areas where these storms are frequent. However, they occur yearly and can impact lands that are far away from the storms. Neither duststorms nor sandstorms are pleasant to be in, for sure.


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Written by Rex Trulove

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  1. Interesting information. Being from the UK and never having lived any where else, I have never experienced a dust storm. I visited Arizona on holiday once though and there was an electric storm brewing in the desert while we were there, – the air was crackling with it! Quite exciting. But it turned out to be a normal thunderstorm rather than a dust storm.

    • Feel fortunate that you’ve never experienced a dust or sandstorm. They aren’t pleasant. I’ve tried to describe what it is like to be in the ash cloud of a major forest fire, but that is similar to a dust storm and my descriptions fall way short of what it is actually like. In 2017, for about a week, we had such smoky air that you couldn’t see across the street. Healthy people were coughing and wheezing for weeks after it finally blew out. That happens with dust storms, too. The dust/sand/smoke gets under your clothes, in your eyes, in your mouth, nose, and ears, and even in your food and water. It can’t be avoided.

  2. Those tiny particles can come through walls it seems. lol. Talk about dusting the house after. A shop vac works well, then I use furniture oil and a rag. So much dust.. They are really awesome to see traveling along though, until you can’t see the sky. lol Great information Rex.

    • The surprising thing to many people is that almost everyone who lives in an area that occasionally gets dry has experienced dust storms, though not at a level that they are normally called a ‘dust storm’. In the dirt is dry and there is a wind, the wind picks up the finer particles and blows them all over.

      You’re very right about the endless dusting and polishing. I have no doubt that it is much worse after one of the dust storms in Phoenix, but when I lived at the edge of the Oregon High Desert, we frequently had the dusty conditions, including when we had thunderstorms, due to the powerful downdrafts. It was because of that issue, and the cost of furniture polish, that I started making my own. I simply couldn’t afford name-brand furniture polish.

      • We can sit on the desert property and look at the huge ones Phoenix has. We get only a handful of them a year. They block out the sun, but make for some really cool shots, not only of the storm, but the lightening is wonderful for photos right before one hits. That orange glow on everything. Thats a thought,,making your own..

  3. I would not like to live in places where all this is happening ..Fortunately, there are no such events in the Balkans.There are strong winds and rain … but I have not experienced such a terrible phenomenon and I hope that I will not.

  4. Excellent article and timely. I was caught in a haboob once in the early 80s. A friend of mine and I took a trip through the desert between Phoenix and Tucson. On the way back were got caught in one. We couldn’t see more than half way to the front of the car. It was rather scary.

    • I’m glad that you were able to make it out safely. That is something that many people don’t realize. Visibility is poor at best in dense fog and blizzards, but in both cases, it is almost always better than in a haboob. In a haboob, visibility is often zero.


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