The term “haboob” is an Arabic word that means “drifting or blowing.” Haboobs are similar to monsoons in their intensity, but they are storms made of dust rather than rain.
While monsoons affect tropical islands and coastal areas, haboobs are confined to dry land-locked areas. They are prevalent in the Sahara Desert, but they also happen in the United States, particularly in the southwestern states.
Facts about Haboobs
- These weather phenomena occur in dry, arid regions such as the Southwest United States, the Sahara Desert, and the Arabian Peninsula.
- They are caused when cold air within a thunderstorm rapidly rushes towards the ground and picks up dust and sand.
- It is important to seek shelter if one is possible or imminent. These events can cause eye and respiratory irritation, even long after one has passed.
- Haboobs can reach up to and over a mile high in height, and be over 100 miles wide.
- A haboob accompanied with or followed by rain is called a “mud storm”.
Are they Haboobs or Dust Storms?
In parts of the Southwestern United States, this can be a sensitive subject. The answer to this question depends on who is asked, and differs from person to person.
Some people claim that they are not exactly the same thing. Some believe that haboobs are really large dust storms, upwards of a mile high or over. These storms would be particularly strong, while dust storms would be smaller and less violent.
Other people note that the word ‘haboob’ is Arabic, and the correct translated term applied to these events should be ‘dust storms’.
Still others say that there are a large number of foreign words intermingled with the English language, so a translation of the word ‘haboob’ to ‘dust storm’ is unnecessary.
What causes a Haboob?
A haboob is created as a result of thunderstorm activity when high winds are pushed rapidly downwards and horizontally across the ground as the tall thunderstorm cloud collapses.
Thunderstorms are prefaced with a cold front, which sends cold air rushing towards the ground. The quickly moving air collects large volumes of sand and dust as it hits the ground.
The force of the wind, combined with the light weight of the sand and dust particles, is enough to create large, quickly moving walls of dust away from the collapsing thunderstorm cloud.
To an onlooker, a haboob appears as a large wall of dust that races over a desert landscape or open tract of land. They can generate a surprising amount of speed – up to 62 MPH at their top speed – and coat everything in their path.
They can be impressive to see, as they can rise to altitudes over 5,000 feet and cover an area over 100 miles wide. In parts of Arizona, they have been reported as tall as a 8,000 feet, which is over a mile and a half high! The largest dust storms created by haboobs can be so massive that they block out the sun and cover everything in their path.
If haboobs are followed by or accompanied by rain, they are called mud storms. The mud that winds kick up can easily coat buildings, cars, and homes in their path, which can cause quite a bit of damage and take a long time to clean up.
Like other types of sand and dust storms, haboobs can appear with little or no warning. Quite often, the only sign that they might appear is when a cold front is approaching that looks to bring showers or storms.
During the storm, visibility may drop down to less than 10 feet in under a minute! Furthermore, the high winds generated in a haboob can lift up rocks and other debris on the ground and send them flying through the air.
Travelers in a vehicle should pull to the side of the road and turn off the car’s engine until the storm passes and visibility improves.
These storms pose a safety hazard to humans and animals. If one is imminent, seeking shelter from the dust storm is highly recommended.
Luckily, most people will seek shelter if they see a storm approaching, which also protects them from many of the troublesome effects of these events.
If possible in your shelter area, close windows and doors, and shut off air conditioning until the haboob has passed entirely.
Eye and Respiratory Irritation
Between the strength of the winds involved and the fact that the storm stirs up dust and dirt, wearing eye protection and protecting the respiratory system is strongly advised.
Even after a haboob passes, the effects can linger for days. Air quality may be reduced, and people may have trouble breathing. Eye irritation and respiratory complaints are often reported after a haboob passes. Staying indoors as much as possible until the air clears after a haboob is the best way to escape its harmful effects.