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Do It Yourself

What are the Differences Between Sandstorms, Dust Storms and Haboobs?

August 19, 2014; 5:43 AM

You may have heard these terms before, but do they all mean the same thing? All three are similar, but with some minor differences. Before going into what a haboob is, which may sound made up, let's go over sandstorms and dust storms.

As defined by the National haboobWeather Service, a sandstorm is particles of sand carried aloft by strong winds; they are mostly confined to the lowest ten feet and rarely rise more than fifty feet above the ground. Sand particles are larger than dust particles, are not launched far and fall out of the air faster. A dust storm is a severe weather condition characterized by strong winds and dust-filled air over an extensive area. The particles in a dust storm are smaller in size than particles in a sandstorm and can be launched higher and farther. Dust storms can be broken down into three categories: localized and channelized dust storms, winter to early spring gradient dust storms and monsoonal convective dust storms.

Localized and channelized dust storms are formed by winds over disturbed areas (i.e. where agricultural crops go fallow) with small scale blinding dust. These are difficult to predict and detect, and are short and sudden. Winter to early spring gradient dust storms are formed by high winds over a large area. These storms are more widespread and create a cloud causing hazy days. Finally, monsoonal dust storms are produced from downbursts in severe thunderstorm development. This creates a blast that lifts dust as high as 5,000 feet generating very large scale, high and dense dust storms. This type of dust storm has been known to be called a haboob. Monsoonal dust storms tend to be the largest and thickest type of dust storms. They can travel as fast as 30 to 60 miles per hour, be as wide as 30 to 100 miles and travel as long as 100 to 200 miles!

Each one of these types of dust storms, no matter the size or duration, can produce hazardous conditions for both transportation and human health. The south/southwest United States is where most dust storms occur, including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, Oklahoma and Colorado. During dust storms, visibility can be reduced significantly causing dangerous driving conditions. And, unsafe levels of particles in the air can rise making it unhealthy to breathe. A noxious mix of fungi, pollutants, heavy metals, chemicals and bacteria, including the fungi that cause valley fever, can be picked up and transported by dust storms. These substances can irritate the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, allergic reactions and other illnesses. It is important to know how to protect yourself and others before and during a dust storm. Pay attention to local forecasts for dust storm warnings and follow the tips below to stay safe.


When driving: If you see a dust storm ahead, never drive into one. If you encounter a dust storm while driving and can't avoid it: Check the traffic around you and begin to slow down. Pull off the road as soon as possible and as far away from travel lanes as you can. Turn off lights, take your foot off the gas and set the emergency brake. NEVER stop in a travel lane. Stay in the vehicle with your seatbelt fastened and wait until the storm passes. Just remember, "Pull aside, stay alive."

When outside: If you see a dust storm coming, seek shelter immediately. If you are already inside a home or other building, stay inside and keep windows closed. If you are caught outside in a dust storm, protect your ears, nose, mouth and eyes with any kind of clothing you may have.

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