Science Facts

What Is A Dust Storm? – Causes, Effect, Example & Safety

Dust Storm

Dust storms globally have become more frequent, especially in places like Africa and China. The severity of these storms is caused by climate change. Different places in the world are various combinations of climate change. And the other human impacts it together causing more dust storms in deformations. Some have suggested that dust storms might have a silver lining and help decrease the effects of global warming.

What happens when it’s up in the atmosphere? It blocks the sunlight from reaching the earth’s surface and reflects some of the back out to space. In doing so, it has a cooling effect but remains only two days, maybe a couple of weeks. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide stay in the atmosphere for centuries. The technical name for a dust storm is HABOOB. The word HAB comes from the Arabic word to blow, and this originated from describing the sandstorms or dust storms in Sudan.

What is a dust storm?

The National Weather Service says a dust storm is a severe weather condition with strong winds and dust-filled air over an extensive area. Sometimes wind causes a minor dust storm that makes the air thick and hazy. But some storms are so intense that often there’s a clearly defined wall of dust that can be seen from miles away. This dust can sometimes turn the blue sky to orange. It’s dramatic.

One with walls of dust that can be miles wide and thousands of feet high. For example, those clouds are usually the result of outflow winds caused by downdrafts in the thunderstorm in Arizona. That wall of dust can cause major issues. Especially for drivers as it can blow across roads and quickly drop visibility down to dangerously low levels.

What causes dust storms?

Thunderstorms have updrafts and downdrafts. It is the air that’s moving up from the ground and into the cloud. It has to be strong enough to suspend some of the rain up a lot where it starts to evaporate and cool down. Once it cools down enough, it gets heavier than the air around it. So it very rapidly falls. The downdrafts push the wind toward the land. The wind that’s coming back down, so a strong downdraft along with some of that precipitation.

They can’t continue to go down, so they push outward that wind pushes outward away from the thunderstorm. It disturbs all of that sand or dust, and that outflow boundary pushes farther and farther away. Also, it creates wind coming out of the storm in all directions.

It can push up to a hundred miles away from that parent thunderstorm. The gust front extends out, moves away from the rain, and picks up all the dust that’s on the ground. So burst of air coming out along the gust front, and it’s kicking up dust along the way. And that gust front is what propels the sand and ultimately creates that dust storm.

Explanation: Pale stones and raindrops start falling, but before they can get anywhere near the ground. They’re evaporated and melted by the heat. It cools down the air that cools it down a lot. So end up with a vast amount of cold air sitting on top of hot, dry air. Suddenly this cold air is a lot denser than the air below it. Then it comes down to worse than something that’s called a downburst. Once that splashes against the surface, it kicks all the dust-up, and that makes dust storm.

Example & effect of dust storm

Dust storms have always been a feature of desert climates. Two main types affect the wind erosion process and thus the frequency of dust storms. Some activities break up naturally wind-resistant surfaces, such as off-road vehicle use and construction. In many cases, the two effects occur simultaneously
which adds to the problem.

The best-known example of the agricultural impact on desert dust is creating the USA’s ‘dust bowl’ in the 1930s. The dramatic rise in dust storms during the latter part of that decade resulted from farmers mismanaging their land. In fact, choking dust storms became so commonplace that the decade became known as the ‘Dirty Thirties.

In places like Arizona, the most dangerous dust clouds are those generated by dry thunderstorms. When this dust is deposited, it causes all sorts of problems for machine operators. It can penetrate the smallest nooks and crannies and play havoc with the way things operate. Because most of the dust is made up of quartz which is very hard.

Another example – the concentration of dust originating from the Sahara has risen steadily since the mid-1960s. This increase in wind erosion has coincided with a prolonged drought, which has gripped the Sahara’s southern fringe. Drought is commonly associated with an increase in dust-raising activity. But it’s caused by low rainfall, which results in vegetation dying off.

One of the foremost examples of modern human-induced environmental degradation is the Aral Sea’s drying up in Central Asia. Its ecological demise dated from the 1950s when intensive irrigation began in the then Central Asian republics of the USSR. This produced a dramatic decline in the volume of water entering the sea from its two major tributaries.

In I960, the Aral Sea was the fourth-largest lake in the world. But since that time, it has lost two-thirds of its volume. Its surface area has halved, and its water level has dropped by more than 216 meters. A knock-on effect of this ecological disaster has been the release of significant new wind-blown material sources, as the water level has dropped. And the problems don’t stop there.

The salinity of the lake has increased so that it is now virtually the same as seawater. It means that the material that is blown from the Aral Sea’s dry bed is highly saline. Scientists believe it is adversely affecting crops around the sea because salts are toxic to plants. This shows that dust storms have numerous consequences beyond their effects on climate, both for the workings of environmental systems and people living in drylands.

How to stay safe on the road during dust storm?

If you see a dust storm coming up, the first tip is to not even drive into it. But if you do find yourself in a dust storm, there are several things that you need to do to be safe.

  • The first one is is to pull off onto the shoulder as far away from the travel portion of the roadway as you can.
  • The second one is is to put your vehicle in park once you’re stopped, your foot off the brake, and shut off all of your vehicle lights.
  • Then sit in your vehicle with your seatbelt on and wait it out.

Social media seems to be the quickest way. Follow the Department of Transportation social media accounts and the National Weather Service in the area you live. They will keep you updated and alerted about the various weather conditions coming with where you’re traveling. The best advice is not to drive into them in the first place. But if you find yourself in one, slow down and move off of the roadway and follow all those steps.

More Articles:


Eslamian, Saeid; Eslamian, Faezeh. Handbook of Drought and Water Scarcity: Management of Drought and Water Scarcity.
Squires, Victor R. “Physics, Mechanics and Processes of Dust and Sandstorms.” Adelaide University, Australia.
“Dust Storms Chapter.” Emergency Management Plan. State of Oregon. Archived from the original.
Koren, Ilan; Kaufman, Yoram J; “The Bodélé depression: A single spot in the Sahara that provides most of the mineral dust to the Amazon forest.”

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