Source: USA Today
Since moving out west I’ve started hearing a lot more about some really informal names for weather features from locals, ranging from the dreaded inversion in Salt Lake Valley to the potent chinook winds of the high plains. And for the most part, most of these names make sense; the inversion refers to a shift in vertical temperatures that result in temperatures increasing with height and the chinook is named after the Native American tribe and its legends about the warm winds. And then there’s the haboob. A name with no immediate bearing to dust storms and whose origins don’t appear to be linked to any Native American legends whatsoever.
Haboob is Arabic for the word “blown”, and it refers to a unique type of dust storm that is common in the Mountain West but especially in the Southwest. During the summer monsoon, isolated and scattered thunderstorms dot the desert and arid areas of the West and as these storms release cold air from their bodies, the air accelerates and sinks back down in the form of downdrafts. These winds strike the surface and then spread out in all directions, kicking up dust in the process. If enough of a column is kicked up from these straight-line winds, the end result can be large, potent dust storms that can reach vertical heights of over 1,000 meters and stretch over 150 kilometers in length, blinding large swaths of land for as far as the eye can see.
Phoenix, AZ, is no stranger to these dust storms. On July 2011, the city experienced one of the largest haboob events ever to happen within the metropolitan area. Indeed, the entire city shut down as skies darkened and visibility levels tanked to less than a meter, making driving nearly impossible across the entire region.
Bystanders on the streets also experienced negative effects, given that air quality almost immediately becomes hazardous as particles can freely enter sensitive parts of the human body, including your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. So what do you if you’re caught in one of these events? If you’re a driver, your first priority is to immediately get off the road before your visibility is gone. If you’re on a freeway or a road outside of a major city/town, safely pull off the roads and turn your lights off, and wait it out. The only exception to keeping you lights off is if you’re unable to get off the road, in which case you should immediately slow down and have them on while you sound your horn to alert others that you’re driving by. As for those who are outdoors, immediately seek shelter indoors. If you can’t immediately go indoors, cover your mouth and slowly make your way to an indoor shelter so as to avoid having contaminants enter your body. Indeed, haboobs are just one of many unique weather features in the Western US that may back east don’t experience very often. And despite the silly name, these events should be taken very seriously, as they are some of the most impressive but terrifying meteorological forces in desert regions.
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© 2019 Meteorologist Gerardo Diaz Jr