There are many ways natural phenomena can be a threat to humans. Between blizzards, floods, and tornadoes, it's pretty clear that nature can kill you. But no deadly storm looks as menacing as the haboob. These particularly dangerous-looking natural weather occurrences are crazy sandstorms in desert regions. And while these things are dangerous themselves, what makes them all the more terrifying is how they look as they approach.
What are haboobs? They are giant localized sandstorms that occur when thunderstorms blow dust into the atmosphere. These dust storms can envelope entire cities and last over an hour, and typically happen anywhere there is even a hint of desert terrain. And when they blow into town, these scary looking haboobs induce fear into the heart of anyone unfortunate enough to be in their path.
A haboob is much more than a sandstorm. They usually form when thunderstorms pass through a desert. Thunderstorms produce powerful gusty winds, and when those winds pick up dust and sand, it creates an outflow of air. The sand is pushed up and out by a downdraft of cool air. The combination of the dust, the energy of the thunderstorm, and the downdrafts build a wall of dust. These dust clouds are so strong they can knock out power lines, rip up trees, and create near-blackout conditions.
Not surprisingly, "haboob" translates to "strong wind" in Arabic. It is a fitting translation for storms that can travel over 60 mph.
These storms can produce dust clouds 100 miles long, 5,000 feet tall, and can envelope entire cities. These clouds can gain momentum within seconds, and can produce winds that move up to 50 mph. What's even scarier is the fact that haboobs can maintain their steam. Storms like these can last for an hour, and can travel distances of 150 to 200 miles.
Haboobs form anywhere with arid, dry conditions and where there are the cool winds needed to cause a downdraft. More specifically, the storms are formed in California, the US Southwest, the Sahara Desert, the Arab peninsula, and North Africa. Commonly these storms occur during the monsoon season - a hot period during the year known for its dramatic weather. Monsoons typically occur during the hottest months of the summer, when hot temperatures are met with rain showers.
What specifically happens during the monsoon season? Humid weather fuels more rain near the Equator. That warm, moist weather is pushed away and moves either north or south. When that air is met with dry ground - coupled with regular storm systems - they can combine to create super storms, and thus a haboob is born.
Though they look like something out of a biblical prophecy, Haboobs are not that dangerous and only cause, on average, less than 10 deaths a year. Compare that to the 60 people on average who die from tornados each year. Dust is no joke, though. Arizona state officials said in 2016, dust-related incidents were the third-largest weather-related killer in the state. Though most of these dust-related events are directly tied to a haboob. In Arizona nearly 10 of the storms blow through the state every year.
For drivers caught in the storms, simply pulling over to the side of the road will ensure safety. Anyone outside should find shelter. However, for hikers and those who can't get to shelter, the best advice is to keep eyes covered and wrap a wet bandana around the mouth and nose to stop debris from getting into the mouth and lungs.