What Causes Arizona Dust Storms?

Dust storms (or haboobs) in Arizona

The Anatomy of an Arizona Dust Storm (aka Haboob)

Dust storms (aka haboobs) are a common occurrence in Arizona and they often wreak havoc when they blow through. Having been in several dust storms and not being from Arizona, I became curious as to why haboobs even happen. I’m used to storms blowing rain, not dust.

Desert Thunderstorms

Believe it or not, Arizona does get thunderstorms every once in a while but primarily in the monsoon season. They’re not the “normal” type of thunderstorms, because these clouds really have to fight to get through the desert. The updraft of heat creates a bubble of hot air that is difficult to penetrate. So, when a thunderstorm DOES make it through, it’s packing a punch. Storm clouds build up with water from the atmosphere, causing rain to fall to the ground and evaporates quickly, producing what meteorologists call “outflow“. The outflow comes crashing down across the desert and pushes ahead of the storm like a giant push broom. This gush of air picks up dirt and debris and blows it across the landscape. Wind gusts can reach 30-70 mph, creating a huge wall of dust.

Effects of a Dust Storm

Dust storms look cool on TV and probably reminds many people of “The Mummy” movie. When they blow through, these storms can down power lines, cause property damage, halt traffic and always shuts down the airport. The National Weather Service estimated that the July 5, 2011 Phoenix dust storm reached a peak height of at least 5,000 to 6,000 feet, with the leading edge stretching for almost 100 miles. The dust storm traveled at least 150 miles.

The amazing fact about dust storms is they product little to no rain. It can storm like a hurricane, but you won’t see a drop of water, only dust. If you’re caught outside in a dust storm, it’s very uncomfortable. Sand gets into your eyes, mouth and ear canals. If the windows to your car or house are open, you will find a layer of dust throughout.

Dust storms are so common here that people usually go on with their normal lives, albeit a lot slower on the roadways. It blows through after about 30-60 minutes, and it’s sunny again and you would not have seen any rain. Honestly, I’d rather be in a severe rainstorm than a dust storm. For days after the dust storm, the air becomes more hazy than normal. One morning, I noticed a very white haze outside that made it look like there was a nearby wild fire.

There isn’t that much to say about dust storms, except they suck and serves as a reminder of the fact I hate living in Arizona. There are no soothing, soft rain storms here. Storms blow through hard and fast bringing wind, dust and damage. Additionally, it adds to the pollution problem and infects more victims with Valley Fever.


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