Dust storms are a common occurrence in the western half of the United States, and they can form with little or no warning. Most do not develop to large-scale events that can swallow entire cities, but even the smallest ones can present a threat to health and safety. Let’s take a look at some of the hazards that are associated with these storms and what you can do to protect against their inherent risks.
Their Formation and Expansion
Dust storms usually form as the result of high winds spreading across vast swaths of dry and dusty land. However, they are commonly brought on from downdrafts of air that are released from thunderstorms as they lose strength and dissipate. Falling air spreads outward once it reaches the ground, picking up and transporting particles that rest on the surface. If the storm cell is large enough, or if it is part of a series of storms, the winds can mingle and create a mini-frontal system that can push vast amounts of particulates into the air. Walls of dust and debris can rise to up to a mile high and a hundred miles wide, and they can travel great distances at speeds of more than 50 mile per hour.
A dust storm includes much more than blowing sand. Particles that are blown about at high speeds include small branches, twigs, thorns, shards of glass, pieces of bark and other forms of debris that can be found on the ground. Scratches, injuries to the eyes and ears as well as ingestion of harmful debris can create serious health risks. Reduced visibility can create hazards on roads, and air travel can grind to a halt. Sensitive electronic devices can be contaminated with fine particles of dust, causing them to overheat or short-circuit and downed power lines are not uncommon. These are just a few examples of the pervasive extent of the havoc that dust storms can create, and most of them form with little warning.
The safest place to be during a dust storm is indoors. Close windows and doors, seal cracks and crevices with duct tape or moist towels and turn off any devices that may come into contact with dust particles. If you are on the road, the best course of action is to pull off to the side, beyond emergency lanes and shoulders. Do not turn on head or tail lights as they are proven to present a greater hazard. The further you are away from traffic will improve your chances of avoiding getting caught up in a multi-vehicle collision, which is a common occurrence as these storms pass. If you are in the wilderness, shelter in place and cover yourself with a tarp or poncho until the storm passes.
It is also advisable to place a damp cloth, t-shirt or face mask over your nose and mouth and cover your eyes and ears if you are exposed to a storm. You also want to turn your back into the wind to minimize exposure. Get to a place where you can rinse yourself off with water as soon as possible and treat any injuries in order to minimize irritation or further exposure. Make sure to inspect electronic devices before turning them on, and remove any excess dust from your vehicle’s engine before also checking the air filter. You also want to inspect the immediate area to ensure that you are not exposed to downed power lines or traffic hazards as well.
Never underestimate the potential hazards that are associated with dust storms. They may appear to be slow-moving and gentle from a distance, but these storms have the potential to wreak havoc on everything from transportation to communications and safety. Take these events seriously and do whatever you can to secure your area and get out of harm’s way.