H is for Haboob

After writing a blog on derechos, I thought it could be a fun idea for a series, where I write about unique weather events that start with different letters of the alphabet! To carry on with the theme, this week’s fun weather word is “haboob,” which is an intense sandstorm or duststorm caused by strong winds, with sand and/or dust often lofted as high as 5,000 feet (!!) creating a “wall of dust” along the leading edge of the haboob.

The name for the phenomenon comes from the Arabic word habb, which means “to blow.” Originally, the term haboob was created as a descriptor for the wind and sand/dust storms common in central and northen Sudan, especailly around the Khartoum area, where they experience approximately twenty-four haboobs each year, with most occurring between May through September. However, the term is now commonly used across the globe to describe any wind-driven sandstorm or duststorm in arid or sem-arid regions. Haboobs have been observed in the Middle East/Arabian Peninsula, the Sahara Desert, central Australia, and the arid regions of southwest North America, from the Sonoran Desert of northwest Mexico and Arizona to the western portions of the Great Plains of the United States.

May 2020 haboob outside Boise, Idaho. Photo courtesy: Katie Buck Holley

While haboobs can happen anywhere in the United States, they are most common in the Southwest. They can occur as a result of strong thunderstorm outflow winds, and the local National Weather Service Office will issue a Dust Storm Warning if one is occurring. They typically occur with little warning, in the form of an advancing wall of dust and debris which can be miles long and several thousand feet high. The blinding, choking dust can quickly reduce visibility, causing accidents that may involve chain collisions and massive pileups. Although these typically only last a few minutes, the actions motorists take are critical. So, what should you do if you observe dense dust blowing across or approaching the road you’re traveling on?

  • Pull your vehicle off the pavement as far as possible, stop, turn off the lights, and set the emergency brake. Make sure to take your foot off dust pedal to ensure the tail lights are not illuminated.
  • Do NOT enter the dust storm area if you can avoid it.
  • If you can’t safely pull off the road, reduce your speed to one suitable for the visibility, turn on your lights, and sound your horn occasionally. Use the painted center line as a guide, and continue looking for a safe place to pull off the roadway.
  • NEVER stop in the lanes of a roadway.

Curious why you should turn off your lights when pulling off the roadway?

That’s because, in the past, when motorists have pulled off the roadway and left their lights on, approaching vehicles have inadvertently used the parked car’s lights as a guide and left the roadway – in some instances, colliding with the parked vehicle.

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