For the fictional character, see Dust Storm (Transformers). For other uses, see Sandstorm (disambiguation).

A dust storm or sand storm is a meteorological phenomenon common in arid and semi-arid regions. Dust storms arise when a gust front or other strong wind blows loose sand and dirt from a dry surface. Particles are transported by saltation and suspension, a process that moves soil from one place and deposits it in another. The Sahara and drylands around the Arabian peninsula are the main terrestrial sources of airborne dust, with some contributions from Iran, Pakistan and India into the Arabian Sea, and China's significant storms deposit dust in the Pacific. It has been argued that recently, poor management of the Earth's drylands, such as neglecting the fallow system, are increasing dust storms from desert margins and changing both the local and global climate, and also impacting local economies.[1] The term sandstorm is used most often in the context of desert sandstorms, especially in the Sahara, or places where sand is a more prevalent soil type than dirt or rock, when, in addition to fine particles obscuring visibility, a considerable amount of larger sand particles are blown closer to the surface. The term dust storm is more likely to be used when finer particles are blown long distances, especially when the dust storm affects urban areas.


As the force of wind passing over loosely held particles increases, particles of sand first start to vibrate, then to saltate ("leap"). As they repeatedly strike the ground, they loosen and break off smaller particles of dust which then begin to travel in suspension. At wind speeds above that which causes the smallest to suspend, there will be a population of dust grains moving by a range of mechanisms: suspension, saltation and creep.[1]

A recent study finds that the initial saltation of sand particles induces a static electric field by friction. Saltating sand acquires a negative charge relative to the ground which in turn loosens more sand particles which then begin saltating. This process has been found to double the number of particles predicted by previous theories.[2] Particles become loosely held mainly due to drought or arid conditions, and varied wind causes. Gust fronts may be produced by the outflow of rain-cooled air from an intense thunderstorm. Or, the wind gusts may be produced by a dry cold front, that is, a cold front that is moving into a dry air mass and is producing no precipitation—the type of dust storm which was common during the Dust Bowl years in the U.S. Following the passage of a dry cold front, convective instability resulting from cooler air riding over heated ground can maintain the dust storm initiated at the front. In desert areas, dust and sand storms are most commonly caused by either thunderstorm outflows, or by strong pressure gradients which cause an increase in wind velocity over a wide area. The vertical extent of the dust or sand that is raised is largely determined by the stability of the atmosphere above the ground as well as by the weight of the particulates. In some cases, dust and sand may be confined to a relatively shallow layer by a low-lying temperature inversion. In other instances, dust (but not sand) may be lifted as high as 20,000 feet (6,100 m) high.

Drought and wind contribute to the emergence of dust storms, as do poor farming and grazing practices by exposing the dust and sand to the wind.

One poor farming practice which contributes to dust storms is dryland farming. Particularly poor dryland farming techniques are intensive tillage or not having established crops or cover crops when storms strike at particularly vulnerable times prior to revegetation.[3] In a semi-arid climate, these practices increase susceptibility to dust storms. However, soil conservation practices may be implemented to control wind erosion.

Physical and environmental effects

A sandstorm can transport large volumes of sand unexpectedly. Dust storms can carry large amounts of dust, with the leading edge being composed of solid wall of dust as much as 1.6 km (0.99 mi) high. Dust and sand storms which come off the Sahara Desert are locally known as a simoom or simoon (sîmūm, sîmūn). The haboob (həbūb) is a sandstorm prevalent in the region of Sudan around Khartoum, with occurrences being most common in the summer.

The Sahara desert is a key source of dust storms, particularly the Bodélé Depression[4] and an area covering the confluence of Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria.[5]

Saharan dust storms have increased approximately 10-fold during the half-century since the 1950s, causing topsoil loss in Niger, Chad, northern Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. In Mauritania there were just two dust storms a year in the early 1960s, but there are about 80 a year today, according to Andrew Goudie, a professor of geography at Oxford University.[6][7] Levels of Saharan dust coming off the east coast of Africa in June (2007) were five times those observed in June 2006, and were the highest observed since at least 1999, which may have cooled Atlantic waters enough to slightly reduce hurricane activity in late 2007.[8][9][10]

Dust storms have also been shown to increase the spread of disease across the globe. Virus spores in the ground are blown into the atmosphere by the storms with the minute particles then acting like urban smog or acid rain.[11]

Prolonged and unprotected exposure of the respiratory system in a dust storm can also cause silicosis which, if left untreated, will lead to asphyxiation; silicosis is an incurable condition that also may lead to lung cancer. There is also the danger of keratoconjunctivitis sicca ("dry eyes") which, in severe cases without immediate and proper treatment, can lead to blindness.

Economic impact

Dust storms cause soil loss from the dry lands, and worse, they preferentially remove organic matter and the nutrient-rich lightest particles, thereby reducing agricultural productivity. Also the abrasive effect of the storm damages young crop plants. Other effects that may impact the economy are: reduced visibility affecting aircraft and road transportation; reduced sunlight reaching the surface; increased cloud formation increasing the heat blanket effect; high level dust sometimes obscures the sun over Florida; effects on human health of breathing dust.

Dust can also have beneficial effects where it deposits: Central and South American rain forests get most of their mineral nutrients from the Sahara; iron-poor ocean regions get iron; and dust in Hawaii increases plantain growth. In northern China as well as the mid-western U.S., ancient dust storm deposits known as loess are highly fertile soils, but they are also a significant source of contemporary dust storms when soil-securing vegetation is disturbed.

Extraterrestrial dust storms

Dust storms are not limited to Earth; see Mars dust storms.

Notable dust storms

  • ~524 BC The 50,000 strong army of Cambyses II supposedly buried by a sandstorm en route to the Siwa Oasis.[12]
  • ~400 AD The Chinese Silk Road city-state of Niya was abandoned rapidly, perhaps because of a sandstorm, as local legend would suggest. The sand has preserved the city to such an extent it has been referred to as the "Pompeii of the Silk Road."[13]
  • 1930s: A series of dust storms displaced hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers in the central United States and Canada during the Dust Bowl.
  • 1934: Just one of many notable storms in the 1930s, the storm of 9–11 May 1934 began in the far north-western Great Plains and proceeded east over the northern tier of states and parts of Canada and was notable for removing the vast majority of the soil deposited since the last Ice Age over some parts of its path.
  • 1954-1991: The multi-year droughts in portions of North America of 1954–56, 1976–78, and 1987–91 were noted for dust storms of the intensity seen in the middle 1930s over some fraction of their coverage and timespan, and more sporadically during the times between. The three multi-year droughts were similar to the 1930s in storms being raised by synoptic scale weather events such as cyclones and cold fronts; otherwise the most common trigger is the outflow from convective activity, known as a haboob. Significant events of the latter variety occurred in Colorado and Kansas in May 2004 with winds to 100 mph (161 km/h), Minnesota and Wisconsin in June 2004 causing significant damage, and the upper Middle West in May 1988, notable for strong electrification and lightning activity and by one estimate reaching 30,000 ft (9,144 m) or more. The first and third of this list reached black blizzard intensity, causing total blackout for some period ranging from 90 sec to 10 or more minutes, over some fraction of the ground covered. The 1987-91 drought was especially notable as in the 1930s for the large number of rain of mud events, often generated by dust in suspension and/or carried on upper-level winds.
  • 1971: A dust storm that occurred near Tucson, Arizona on July 16 was extensively documented by meteorologists.
  • 1983: 1983 Melbourne dust storm: On the afternoon of February 8 a huge dust storm originating in the Mallee region of Victoria, Australia covered the city of Melbourne.
  • 1997: On May 2, a sandstorm in Libya and Egypt killed 12 people.[14]
  • 2003: In March 2003, a severely heavy dust storm swept through central Iraq, becoming so intense that the United States Military's movement north to Baghdad was halted until the storm ended.
  • 2007: In June, a large dust storm generated by Cyclone Yemyin struck Karachi, Pakistan and areas of the Sindh and lower Balochistan, followed by a series of heavy rainfalls which resulted in a death toll of nearly 200.
  • 2009: On February 11, a sandstorm in the Kingdom of Bahrain in Sakhir halted Formula One testing for Ferrari, BMW and Toyota.[15]
  • 2009: 2009 Australian dust storm: On September 23, a dust storm that started in South Australia and inland New South Wales, Australia, blanketed New South Wales with reddish orange skies.[16] It stretched as far north as southern Queensland.[17][18] and as far east as New Zealand[19]
  • 2010: 2010 China drought and dust storms: A sandstorm that started in Mongolia blasted Beijing on March 20, and covered large areas of China in the following days.[20] Several countries in East Asia were affected. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea recorded extremely poor visibility and air quality in an extremely rare level 5 hazardous rating.[21] A number of residents reported health problems, while flights were canceled or delayed due to poor visibility caused by the sandstorm.[22]
  • 2011: A major dust storm swept through the southern portion of the Desert Southwest U.S. State of Arizona on Tuesday, July 5, 2011. The dust storm was triggered from thunderstorms to the south of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Dust from the deserts were blown up by high winds. The winds were estimated to be over 60 mph (97 km/h).[23] The storm went through the city of Phoenix a little after 7:00 p.m. local time. The event was captured on video by local media and was seen live on national television channels such as The Weather Channel.[24] Local flights in the area were delayed because of the storm. Power outages were also reported.[25][26]
  • 2011: On March 25, 2011, at approximately 5:30 PM (GMT +3) a dust storm swept through Kuwait turning the setting evening sun to immediate darkness reaching minimal visibility in mere minutes. What at first seemed to be smoke from a burning building was in fact a sand storm.
  • 2012: On February 25, an extreme dust storm affected Riyadh in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where it became totally dark at only 4:00 P.M. local time.
  • 2012: on March 19, an extreme dust storm affected the major cities of Pakistan including Karachi and some parts of Middle East. Air traffic worst affected Massive dust storm hits country’s coastal areas
  • 2013: On January 10, 2013, a dust storm covered Onslow, Australia[27]

Dust storm visibility of 1/4 mile or less, or meters or less

Dust storms with minimum visibility reduced to 1/4 mile or less, or meters or less: Date of occurrence, originating geographical region(s), visibility.

Date Originating state region(s), City regions, Country Minimum Visibility
1930s "Dust Bowl" Central United States to Canada Often a few feet (a meter) or less[note 1]
April 14, 1935 "Black Sunday" during the "Dust Bowl" Texas Panhandle to the Oklahoma Panhandle, United States[note 2] Often near zero[28]
June 22 2006 Central and western portions of the South Plains region of Texas[note 2] Near zero[29]
February 24, 2007 Near Lubbock, Texas—and south and southeast of Lubbock—in West Texas, United States[note 2] Less than a mile[30][31]
March 11, 2009 Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Few meters[32]
September 23, 2009 South Australia to inland New South Wales, Australia Meters
July 5, 2011 Southern portion of the Desert Southwest in the state of Arizona, United States[note 3][33] Zero[23]
October 17 2011 Northeast New Mexico and the Texas South Plains region[note 2] Near zero[34]
July 21, 2012 Gilbert / Phoenix, Arizona, United States[note 3] Zero[35]
September 6, 2012 Phoenix, Arizona, United States[note 3] Less than a quarter of a mile[36]
December 19, 2012 From Lubbock, Texas to Amarillo, Texas, United States[note 2] Near zero[37][38]


See also


External links

  • 12-hour U.S. map of surface dust concentrations Mouse-over an hour block on the row for 'Surface Dust Concentrations'
  • Lubbock, Texas on December 15, 2003
  • Video of a dust storm in Al Asad Iraq, April 27, 2005
  • Portal to Texas History.
  • The Bibliography of Aeolian Research
  • Photos of a sandstorm in Riyadh in 2009 from the BBC Newsbeat website
  • Dust storm in Phoenix Arizona via YouTube