Sandstorms: When the Atmosphere Leaves the Desert Deserted

Perhaps the only sandstorm you are familiar with is during a beach vacation when a strong breeze blows sand in your eyes. As annoying as this can be, it is still no match for what the atmosphere can brew up in the desert.

(Photo/mdesigner125/Getty Images)

Sandstorms (also called “haboobs” if they come from thunderstorms) are produced from high wind speeds kicking up sand and dirt particles off a dry surface. As one would expect, they are most common in regions that are arid or semi-arid. Places in the United States where they are often witnessed include Arizona, Nevada, and California; they can also occur in Colorado and Oklahoma if the conditions are right. Dust storms are classified as a type of sandstorm, but the carried particles are smaller and therefore travel further and higher in the atmosphere.

The size and speed of these types of storms really depend on the size and speed of the wind driving them. Strong outflow boundaries from thunderstorms can produce big ones that can get as high as 5,000 feet above ground level and speeds of 50 miles per hour. However, these are quite rare, and you can expect the vast majority of sand storms to be closer to 100 feet and 30 miles per hour. Luckily, the storm itself usually only lasts between a few minutes to an hour, but the remnants of particles can linger for several days making them hazards in terms of air quality and visibility. 

If a sandstorm threatens, you should have face protection such as a mask and/or goggles on hand to keep airborne particles away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. It is best to be inside some kind of infrastructure (hence the sad attempt of a pun in the title), but if caught in a car, immediately pull over to avoid driving in low visibility. Face coverings are also strongly recommended in cars as some particulates can still make their way inside, and a blanket also serves as a great shield, so it’s a good idea to keep one handy in the vehicle. Lastly, keep water handy as the dryness will be dehydrating!

by Arianna Jordan