Think about dust. It sounds benign, a nuisance for meticulous housekeepers, perhaps, but essentially harmless.
Now think about a towering cloud of dust several miles high enveloping the world around you. The dust swallows up buildings, cars, people … everything for miles in every direction. It’s impossible to see a thing and hard to breathe. Dust gets in your eyes, your nose, your mouth, into the grill of your car. It sticks to your skin and leaves a gritty film on every surface.
This is a haboob, a large, severe dust storm that happens in arid regions. The name comes from the Arabic word for “blasting.” Haboobs are fairly common on the Arabian Peninsula, which is mostly desert.
Even though this type of storm takes its name from a region half a world away, North America is no stranger to haboobs. Dangerous dust storms are a part of life in many parts of the United States, especially in the dry, dusty Southwest. Even areas that aren’t usually prone to dust storms can get them during periods of intense drought. This happened often during the “Dust Bowl” era of the 1930s, when dust storms became so frequent and intense that homes and farms became partially buried under piles of dirt.
Haboobs are caused when a high-pressure storm system moves through an area. Intense storms pull air up from beneath them and push air out in either direction. When this happens in a wet region, it’s just like any other wind, albeit an intense one. When it happens in an arid region, though, the wind stirs up countless tiny dust particles, agitating them into a moving wall of dirt. Winds in a haboob can travel faster than 60 miles per hour.
Though haboobs can be sudden and unpredictable, the National Weather Service does issue haboob warnings in areas where they are common. Visibility inside of a hoboob can be zero, making them especially dangerous for unsuspecting drivers.
If you ever find yourself inside a haboob while driving, the best thing to do is to pull over and wait it out. If you are outside during a haboob, try to find shelter. Getting dust in your eyes and lungs can be dangerous.
Jaime McLeod is a longtime journalist who has written for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites, including MTV.com. She enjoys the outdoors, growing and eating organic food, and is interested in all aspects of natural wellness.