A dust / sand storm is a meteorological phenomenon common in arid and semi-arid regions. Dust storms arise when a gust front or other strong wind blows loose sand and dust from a dry surface. Particles are transported by saltation and suspension, causing soil erosion from one place and deposition in another. The Sahara and drylands around the Arabian peninsula are the main terrestrial sources of airborne dust, with some contributions from Iran, Pakistan and India into the Arabian Sea, and China's significant storms deposit dust in the Pacific. It has been argued that recently, poor management of the Earth's drylands, such as neglecting the fallow system, are increasing dust storms from desert margins and changing both the local and global climate, and also impacting local economies.
The term sandstorm is used most often in the context of desert sandstorms, especially in the Sahara, or places where sand is a more prevalent soil type than dirt or rock, when, in addition to fine particles obscuring visibility, a considerable amount of larger sand particles are blown closer to the surface. The term dust storm is more likely to be used when finer particles are blown long distances, especially when the dust storm affects urban areas.
A dust storm obscures Interstate 5 in southern California.
As the force of wind passing over loosely held particles increases, particles of sand first start to vibrate, then to saltate ("leap"). As they repeatedly strike the ground, they loosen and break off smaller particles of dust which then begin to travel in suspension. At wind speeds above that which causes the smallest to suspend, there will be a population of dust grains moving by a range of mechanisms: suspension, saltation and creep.
A recent study finds that the initial saltation of sand particles induces a static electric field by friction. Saltating sand acquires a negative charge relative to the ground which in turn loosens more sand particles which then begin saltating. This process has been found to double the number of particles predicted by previous theories.
An intense Saharan dust storm sent a massive dust plume northwestward over the Atlantic Ocean on March 2, 2003
Dryland farming caused a large dust storm in parts of eastern Washington on October 4, 2009. Courtsey: NASA/GSFC, MODIS Rapid Response
Particles become loosely held mainly due to drought or arid conditions, and wind has varied causes. Gust fronts may be produced by the outflow of rain-cooled air from an intense thunderstorm, or they may represent a dry cold front, that is, a cold front that is moving into a dry air mass and is producing no precipitation. This is the type of dust storm which was common during the Dustbowl years in the U.S. Following the passage of a dry cold front, convective instability resulting from cooler air riding over heated ground can maintain the dust storm initiated at the front. In desert areas, dust and sand storms are most commonly caused by either thunderstorm outflows, or by strong pressure gradients which cause an increase in wind velocity over a wide area. The vertical extent of the dust or sand that is raised is largely determined by the stability of the atmosphere above the ground as well as by the weight of the particulates. In some cases, dust and sand may be confined to a relatively shallow layer by a low-lying temperature inversion. In other instances, dust (but not sand) may be lifted as high as 20,000 feet (6,100 m) high.
Drought and wind contribute to the emergence of dust storms, as do poor farming and grazing practices by exposing the dust and sand to the wind.
Physical and environmental impacts
Animation showing the global movement of dust from an Asian dust storm.
Dust from the Sahara moves into the North Atlantic.
A sandstorm can move whole sand dunes. Dust storms can carry large amounts of dust, so much so that the leading edge of one can appear as a solid wall of dust as much as 1.6 km (1 mile) high. Dust and sand storms which come off the Sahara Desert are locally known as a simoom or simoon (s?mūm, s?mūn). The haboob (həbūb) is a sandstorm prevalent in the region of Sudan around Khartoum; storms are very common around Khartoum every summer. When it happens you can't see anything but a wall of sand covering your view.
The Sahara desert is a key source of dust storms, particularly the Bod?l? Depression and an area covering the confluence of Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria.
Saharan dust storms have increased approximately 10-fold during the half-century since the 1950s, causing topsoil loss in Niger, Chad, northern Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. In Mauritania there were just two dust storms a year in the early 1960s, but there are about 80 a year today, according to Andrew Goudie, a professor of geography at Oxford University. Levels of Saharan dust coming off the east coast of Africa in June (2007) were five times those observed in June 2006, and were the highest observed since at least 1999, which may cool Atlantic waters enough to slightly reduce hurricane activity in late 2007.
Dust storms have also been shown to increase the spread of disease across the globe. Virus spores in the ground are blown into the atmosphere by the storms with the minute particles then acting like urban smog or acid rain.
Prolonged and unprotected exposure of the respiratory system in a dust storm can also cause Silicosis which, if left untreated, will lead to Asphyxiation. There is also the danger of Keratoconjunctivitis sicca (Dry Eyes) which, in severe cases without immediate and proper treatment, can lead to blindness.
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