Anatomy of an Haboob (a.k.a. Dust Storm)

When you think of the decade the 1930s almost certainly one of the pictures that will pop in  your mind is the Great Dust Bowl.  It changed the geography, population make-up and history of our great country.  Some folks have said that they fear the Dust Bowl could happen again.  But we are not here today to debate that question, we are here to understand how the Dust Storms form and happen.  We begin with the real name of the event itself, Haboob.

It sounds like something foreign or even sexual but the word Haboob has a long linguistic history on the other side of the planet.  According to Encyclopedia Britannica the word Haboob has it's ancestry in the Arabic "Habb," meaning wind.  It can also have a definition of "blasting" or "drafting."

Haboobs are known to occur around the world including the following locations:
  • Sahara Desert
  • Sudan
  • Arabian Peninsula
  • Kuwait
  • Iraq
  • Australia
  • Arizona
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Oklahoma

A Haboob, or Dust Storm begins when wind either from an intense high pressure system or from a dieing thunderstorm reaches the ground.  As that wind hits the ground and then moves parallel to the ground it picks up the lose soil, gravel and anything else light enough to become airborne.

Eventually the dust and dirt coalesce into a wall of dust moving across the plains.  The walls of dirt have been known to be as wide as 60 miles and can reach into the atmosphere by thousands of feet.

The Dust Storms often move quickly across the land at speeds of 20-60 miles per hour.  They can easily turn a sunny warm day into near zero visibility and darkness due to the density of the dust.

Many folks that suffer from asthma and other lung related conditions and diseases will have increased symptoms of the illnesses as the very strong particles of dirt and dust fill the persons lungs.

The best practice to keep yourself safe during a dust storm or haboob is to move indoors and stay there for a few hours.  It will take time for the dust to settle in the atmosphere. 

In addition dust particles are very very tiny, some are almost microscopic which can blow into crevasses and corners.  Windows that are not properly sealed and areas around doors can allow dust and dirt to seep in which can create dust filled air in your home.

Some folks wonder why it is so easy for the dirt to be picked up and the answer sounds very contradictory, it has to do with rain.

If it rains the day before the dust storm the rain hits the ground and loosens the dirt and dust particles from the hard ground and clay.  The rain produces mud.  As the sun comes back out and causes the water to evaporate it leaves the dust or dirt particle lose and unattached to the ground.  This then allows the slightest air movement to pick up the dirt and dust.  The next day, after the rain, sometimes high winds in the range of 30-50 mph will come by.  This wind then easily picks up the dust and dirt particles to where they become airborne.  A wall of dust eventually takes shape and a Dust Storm or Haboob is born.

The most recent Dust Storm/Haboob to effect Texoma moved through on Tuesday, March 18, 2014.  The National Weather Service documented the progress of the Haboob via visual satellite.  Take a look at the orangish graphic above.

Cycle through the other pictures to see examples of other dust storms from around the globe.

Here are the National Weather Service alerts used in these situations:
Blowing Dust Advisory:  Blowing dust will reduce visibility to below one mile.  Those driving should dramatically slow down and procede with caution while dust is in the air.  Those with health problems from fine particulates should protect themselves from the dust.  These are issued for a few counties for a period of a few hours.

Dust Storm Warning:  Blowing dust will reduce visibility to below one quarter mile.  At times visibility will be near zero.  Those driving are encouraged to pull over on the side of the road and cease travel.  If you at all possible delay any trips until the dust storm has passed.  Driving in zero visibility can be extremely dangerous.  These are issued for multiple counties for a few hours at a time.  This is an upgrade from a Blowing Dust Advisory.

KFDX Meteorologist Bryan Rupp.

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