A dust storm or sand storm is a meteorological phenomenon common in arid and semi-arid regions. Dust storms arise when a gust front or other strong wind blows loose sand and dirt from a dry surface. Particles are transported by saltation and suspension, a process that moves soil from one place and deposits it in another. The Sahara and drylands around the Arabian peninsula are the main terrestrial sources of airborne dust, with some contributions from Iran, Pakistan and India into the Arabian Sea, and China's significant storms deposit dust in the Pacific. It has been argued that recently, poor management of the Earth's drylands, such as neglecting the fallow system, are increasing dust storms from desert margins and changing both the local and global climate, and also impacting local economies. The term sandstorm is used most often in the context of desert sandstorms, especially in the Sahara, or places where sand is a more prevalent soil type than dirt or rock, when, in addition to fine particles obscuring visibility, a considerable amount of larger sand particles are blown closer to the surface. The term dust storm is more likely to be used when finer particles are blown long distances, especially when the dust storm affects urban areas.
As the force of wind passing over loosely held particles increases, particles of sand first start to vibrate, then to saltate ("leap"). As they repeatedly strike the ground, they loosen and break off smaller particles of dust which then begin to travel in suspension. At wind speeds above that which causes the smallest to suspend, there will be a population of dust grains moving by a range of mechanisms: suspension, saltation and creep.
An intense African dust storm sent a massive dust plume northwestward over the Atlantic Ocean on March 2, 2003.
A recent study finds that the initial saltation of sand particles induces a static electric field by friction. Saltating sand acquires a negative charge relative to the ground which in turn loosens more sand particles which then begin saltating. This process has been found to double the number of particles predicted by previous theories.
Dryland farming is also another cause of dust storms, since dryland farmers rely on rainfall to water their crops, they engage in practices to maintain moisture in the soil. Such practices include leaving a field fallow for a year after harvesting to allow the buildup of water to build in the soil and covering the field with dry earth in an attempt to seal in the underlying. These practices make dryland agriculture susceptible to dust storms. These methods are used by farmers in eastern Washington, an arid region.
Physical and environmental effects
A sandstorm can transport large volumes of sand unexpectedly. Dust storms can carry large amounts of dust, with the leading edge being composed of solid wall of dust as much as 1.6 km (0.99 mi) high. Dust and sand storms which come off the Sahara Desert are locally known as a simoom or simoon (sîmūm, sîmūn). The haboob (həbūb) is a sandstorm prevalent in the region of Sudan around Khartoum,with occurrences being most common in the summer.
Animation showing the global movement of dust from an Asian dust storm
Saharan dust storms have increased approximately 10-fold during the half-century since the 1950s, causing topsoil loss in Niger, Chad, northern Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. In Mauritania there were just two dust storms a year in the early 1960s, but there are about 80 a year today, according to Andrew Goudie, a professor of geography at Oxford University. Levels of Saharan dust coming off the east coast of Africa in June (2007) were five times those observed in June 2006, and were the highest observed since at least 1999, which may have cooled Atlantic waters enough to slightly reduce hurricane activity in late 2007.
Dust from the Sahara moves into the North Atlantic
Dust storms have also been shown to increase the spread of disease across the globe. Virus spores in the ground are blown into the atmosphere by the storms with the minute particles then acting like urban smog or acid rain.
Prolonged and unprotected exposure of the respiratory system in a dust storm can also cause silicosis which, if left untreated, will lead to asphyxiation; silicosis is an incurable condition that also may lead to lung cancer. There is also the danger of keratoconjunctivitis sicca ("dry eyes") which, in severe cases without immediate and proper treatment, can lead to blindness.