Desert Dust Storm – The Haboob
Last updated 9/9/2022 at 11:48am
The shrill noise of the weather alert blared on my cell phone as I crossed Yaqui Pass.
I had entered the danger zone and was being warned of possible severe weather, flash flooding and high winds in my area.
Glancing eastward as I slipped into Borrego Valley, I could see a large cloud that resembled smoke billowing up beyond Font's Point.
Pulling over to get a closer look, I could see this was not smoke, but a well-defined dust cloud rolling rapidly to the northeast. Borrego was about to get hit by a haboob.
By the time I reached the airport, the dust cloud was beginning to obscure Clark Dry Lake and reduce visibility along Highway S-22 to nearly zero in some places.
While there was dust in Borrego Springs, the main body of the haboob had passed to the east.
While dust storms and haboobs are easily confused, this was a haboob. And the confusion comes because not all dust storms are haboobs, but all haboobs are dust storms.
So, what is the difference?
While both events are wind driven, dust storms or sandstorms are a result of typical wind flows created by the movement of air from high pressure to low pressure zones.
Haboobs, however, are often well-defined dust clouds created by intense and sudden outflows or downdrafts from collapsing thunderstorms.
Think of it as Nature's oversized version of a leaf blower.
The haboob name comes from the Arabic word haab, which means wind. Such wind events are very common in arid parts of the world, such as the Sahara Desert, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, as well as the desert Southwest.
Depending on the intensity of the thunderstorms, the strength of haboobs can vary, with the more powerful events not only severely limiting visibility, but also accompanied by damaging winds and clogging dust.
Larger haboob events have been recorded with dust clouds several thousand feet high and more than 100 miles in width. The most intense haboob winds have been recorded at over 60 miles per hour. They are generally short-term events, lasting between 10 to 30 minutes.
In areas that were not dampened by rain, these winds will pick up dust, creating the blinding clouds and reduced visibility.
Phoenix, Arizona, is frequently hit by haboobs, creating zero visibility, shutting down air traffic and freeways until winds subside and dust clouds clear.
Borrego's haboob event last week was not large scale, but well defined and for a time, limiting visibility along S-22 east of Borrego Springs.
So, what should you do when traveling and encountering a haboob?
If visibility is severely reduced, the National Weather Service recommends that you immediately pull as far off the road as you safely can. Place your vehicle in park, take your foot off the brake and turn off headlights and taillights.
The idea is to make your vehicle invisible to avoid a rear end collision from another vehicle that may have been following your taillights.
Living in a community where weather extremes are routine, it's a good idea to learn and practice these survival skills.