Desert Haboobs: Hazardous to Health and Safety

A haboob is an intense dust storm that occurs during monsoon season. The term originated from an arabic term meaning wind.

When a thunderstorm produces a downdraft, dirt from the desert floor is swirled up to produce a haboob.

Haboobs are common in desert areas throughout arid regions such as Kuwait, Iraq and in parts of southwest United States including Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. On average, there are about three haboobs that occur in Phoenix every year.

These short-lived, but intense dust storms usually develop between July and August, during monsoon season.

Cold air from the downdraft of a thunderstorm can pull loose dirt up from the desert floor to produce a haboob. As Jim Andrews, expert senior meteorologist, explained, if the rain has already fallen from the storm, the dust is less likely to form into a haboob, because the rain compacts the dirt.

Not all thunderstorms have the key ingredient for producing a haboob, which is strong winds, Andrews said.

A watch may be issued to warn people in advance if a thunderstorm is capable of igniting a haboob, according to Andrews.

Haboobs can result in zero visibility, endangering motorists on roadways and compromising conditions for aviation.

"Haboobs come with blinding visibility. The dust gets everywhere," Andrews said.

Power outages can also be common with large dust storms due to strong winds.

Haboobs can also pose health risks for those with allergies or breathing problems because of the amount of dust in the air.

On average, about five people die every year from haboob-related deaths.

Story by Staff Writer Molly Cochran

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