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Sandstorms and dust storms: 7 key questions answered

Big Middle East dust storm hitting Wadi Rum Village in 2015

The epic 2015 dust storm in the Middle East

In September 2015, a massive dust storm hit several countries in the Middle East, which made headlines worldwide. The storm lasted for nearly two weeks and affected Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt, and parts of Turkey and Cyprus. In Wadi Rum, the storm arrived on Monday, the 7th, in the afternoon and was so dense by Tuesday that visibility was severely reduced. The dust began to disappear on Thursday, but it wasn’t until Friday afternoon that it had cleared. Researchers investigated what caused this massive storm, and in 2017, Princeton University published the article ‘Giant Middle East dust storm caused by a changing climate, not human conflict.’ 

Why this blog about sandstorms and dust storms

This massive dust storm was a significant and memorable event for us, so we wrote a blog post immediately after it happened. Now, nine years and many sandstorms later, we have revised and expanded our original post to answer the seven most frequently asked questions about sandstorms and dust storms in more detail. We also added other interesting information.

#1 What is a sandstorm? And what is a dust storm?

Sandstorms and dust storms are natural atmospheric phenomena caused by high-speed winds, similar to thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, tropical storms, ice storms, hail storms, and blizzards. These winds pick up a considerable amount of sand and dust from dry and barren soils and carry them into the atmosphere. When this happens, it is known as a sandstorm or dust storm.

#2 What is the difference between sandstorms and dust storms?

The main difference between a sandstorm and a dust storm lies in the size of the particles the wind carries. Sandstorms involve much larger and heavier sand particles that can only be lifted to a lower altitude (typically 3-15 meters) by strong winds and are more common in desert regions. On the other hand, dust storms contain much finer particles, like dust and clay, that are lighter and can be carried much higher (up to several thousand meters) and travel much farther distances by strong winds. It is worth noting that dust storms can develop in deserts and other areas far away from deserts.

Haboob

The Arabic term haboob, which means strong wind, is commonly used to refer to a violent sandstorm or dust storm happening in desert regions of Sudan, the Sahara, and the Middle East.

#3 Where do sand and dust storms occur?

Sandstorms and dust storms occur most frequently in arid and semi-arid regions worldwide, where the soil is loose and dry, and strong winds are present. These storms are particularly prevalent in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of Australia and North America. Our blog post, ‘Let’s explore the global desert variety and gain new insights,’ delves deeper into the topic of dry areas around the planet.

#4 What causes sandstorms and dust storms?

Strong winds can lead to sandstorms and dust storms. These winds can arise for various reasons, including differences in pressure between areas causing strong gusts, frontal passages where warm and cold air masses meet, and downward air movement in high-pressure systems. When these strong winds blow over dry and barren soil, they can easily pick up loose particles such as sand and dust, throwing them high into the atmosphere and creating a sandstorm or dust storm. It’s important to note that these storms will be more common during years of drought, and other factors contributing to an increase in these storms are deforestation, desertification, and inappropriate farming, which expose soil. Additionally, increasing global temperatures and shifting weather patterns due to climate change are expected to make dust storms more frequent and severe.

Dust storm in Wadi Rum in 2023

#5 How big can a sandstorm and dust storm be?

Sandstorms vary in size, ranging from a few meters to over one hundred kilometers. Due to their lighter particles, dust storms can cover much larger areas, stretching hundreds of kilometers wide and over a kilometer high. In severe dust storms, dust particles can travel thousands of kilometers, even crossing oceans. For example, Saharan dust can reach northern European countries, the Caribbean, and the United States Gulf Coast.

#6 How fast can a sandstorm and dust storm move?

These storms are known to move at high speeds, with winds reaching at least 40 kilometers per hour. As a result, they can develop and engulf an area very quickly. While most storms don’t last long, they can be intense and leave as suddenly as they arrive.

#7 What are the dangers associated with sandstorms and dust storms?

The biggest dangers are their significant threat to human health and visibility. 

Health risks

Dust storms can carry bacteria and viruses that can harm our health by irritating and infecting our eyes and airways. Those with respiratory conditions are particularly vulnerable, as the dust particles can trigger breathing difficulties and even cause asthma attacks. However, they can also negatively affect people with heart and other health conditions. To stay safe, it is highly recommended that you wear protective eyewear and a mask or a wet scarf covering the nose and mouth.

Visibility issues

A sudden reduction in visibility can be hazardous for people driving, potentially leading to accidents. Additionally, desert areas lacking sealed roads and road signs can pose a severe risk of getting lost when visibility is limited. Massive storms can even disrupt air travel, leading to the temporary closure of airports.

Electricity

In certain circumstances, dust storms can generate their own weather by colliding dust particles in the turbulent atmosphere. These particles can become electrically charged, resulting in lightning within the storm. This can create a dramatic light show amidst the swirling dust. Like many others, we were curious whether lightning in a dust storm could harm or kill humans. Unfortunately, we did not find a conclusive answer that gave us the confidence to share it in our blog.

The environmental importance

Although these storms can have destructive effects, they also play a significant role in maintaining the health of our planet. They act as transporters, carrying essential minerals across vast distances, and help to replenish nutrients in different parts of the world. However, this transport isn’t always beneficial. They can also carry bacteria and viruses, threatening plant health across continents. The storms themselves can be devastating to crops. Walls of dust can cover fields, suffocating plants and hindering photosynthesis, ultimately reducing crop yields and potentially causing widespread damage. Lastly, they have an impact on reducing the amount of solar radiation and increasing the intensity of wind erosion, which is an important factor causing desertification.

The impact of dust on wildlife

Dust can pose a complex threat to wildlife. The tiny particles can easily coat birds’ feathers, making it difficult for them to fly and leaving them vulnerable to predators. Similarly, dust can enter the delicate gills of fish and other aquatic creatures, disrupting their respiration. However, iron-rich dust can be a fertilizer for phytoplankton, which is the foundation of many marine food webs. This may seem beneficial but can also disrupt the ecosystem’s delicate balance, potentially harming fish populations further down the food chain.

What’s most concerning is that dust can act as an unwelcome carrier, transporting bacteria and viruses over long distances. This can introduce new diseases that threaten the health of wildlife.

Sandstorms, dust storms, and our changing climate

Climate change plays a complex role in the frequency and intensity of these storms. While dust can reflect sunlight and potentially cool the Earth’s surface, it can also disrupt rainfall patterns. Dust absorbs sunlight, which can alter wind patterns and influence cloud formation. Additionally, dust particles act as tiny nuclei around which water droplets condense, potentially leading to unexpected rainfall patterns. Therefore, understanding how climate change affects these dynamics is crucial, as dust storms significantly affect weather, ecosystems, and human health.

Sandstorm in Wadi Rum in 2023

Sand and dust storm season in Jordan​

Sand and dust storms occur throughout our country, usually from October to May, but occasionally, we also have storms during the summer months. However, more than half of all storms occur in spring (February till May), with April being the peak month, accounting for around 20% of all storms. Generally, the probability of experiencing a sandstorm or dust storm is higher in our country’s southern and eastern regions. Usually, the storms last for one to four days. According to a scientific publication in the American Journal of Climate Change, Jafr, a city in the Governorate of Ma’an, experiences the most intense and longest-lasting storms in Jordan.

Sandstorm warning system

There is no specific warning system for sand and dust storms. However, modern technology, such as satellite imagery and radars, can help forecast these storms, allowing for early warnings and mitigation efforts. Thus, if you plan to visit a desert region, keeping an eye on the weather forecast is important.

Exploring the Wadi Rum desert can always be a memorable experience

Weather and natural phenomena affect your experience while visiting Wadi Rum. Therefore, we recommend checking out our blog post, ‘What is the best time to visit Wadi Rum?’. Once you decide when to visit Wadi Rum, you can check out our tour packages and options for overnight stays. And if you come during spring, buy a head scarf to protect yourself from the dusty wind. For more recommendations on what to wear, please check out our blog post, ‘7 helpful tips on how to dress perfectly for desert adventures’.


We look forward to welcoming you to Wadi Rum for a memorable adventure!

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