How Dust Storms Work And Why Australia Will Keep Getting Them

Parts of central NSW were hit with an intense dust storm in January 2020, which saw rural towns cloaked in a rolling plume of brown and red dirt, turning day skies into night. To better understand how they work and why the region has been hit by so many in recent months, we asked an expert to explain the terrifying event.

As seen in the terrifying video below, a dust storm of this magnitude appears like a wall of dust, kilometres long and blankets everything in its path. To find out how the natural phenomenon occurs, Lifehacker Australia spoke to Paul Hesse, an expert at Macquarie University about how they form and how they affect human health and property.

What are dust storms?

As the name suggests, they are large gusts of wind filled and often happen in dusty, rural towns near Australia’s centre, as explained by the Bureau of Meteorology. They’re less common the closer you live to the coast but every now and then, conditions line up and major cities experience one as it happened in Sydney’s infamous 2009 red sky incident.

Paul explained there are just two key factors needed for one to form.

“The two conditions you need are a bare soil and a strong wind,” Paul explained. “Because of the drought, there are large parts of the country with very low vegetation cover, which would ordinarily protect the soil. The strong winds often come with cold fronts — especially in south eastern Australia — or the troughs just before a cold front, which cause gusty winds.”

Areas like Dubbo and further west are seeing more frequent dust storms due to the drought conditions being faced in these areas. The ferocity of this particular dust storm means it could eventually reached Victoria and Melbourne days later.

“The frequency and severity are linked to the duration and severity of droughts,” Paul said. “In the Millennium drought — and the current drought — the dust storms became more frequent and more severe with time. In the drier areas (for example, western NSW), they will be more frequent and start earlier but as the drought progresses, we get more of them making it to the eastern seaboard.”

We’ve reached out to the Bureau of Meteorology to confirm how many dust storms the region has experienced over the past few months and if there has been an increasing trend in severity and frequency.

Are dust storms dangerous?

While the ominous wall of dust looks apocalyptic, history has shown us towns emerge from the dust storms mostly in tact. Instead, it’s the winds that cause the dust storm in the first place that cause the damage.

“Depending on the severity the wind can cause damage, rather than the dust,” Paul said. “Long term, we know that wind erosion removes topsoil and so it removes the nutrients from farmland.”

Paul explained larger dust storms were also found to cool affected regions in the past.

“Mostly the dust storms are a response to weather conditions,” Paul said. “We do know that over the long term dust does have a slight cooling effect — on average — on the climate because more of the sun’s radiation is scattered back to space and doesn’t reach the surface.”

The thunderstorm associated with the dust storm, according to BOM, is expected to hit coastal areas of the state by the afternoon bringing dusty conditions with it.

Health effects of dust storms

Paul explained there are potential effects on human health too outside of property damage and wild weather conditions.

“We know there are health consequences to breathing in fine particles,” Paul said. “Obviously for some people it can trigger asthma. For me, I get hay fever type symptoms of itchy eyes and a running nose.”

What should I do if a dust storm is approaching?

If a dust storm is as extensive as the one seen in the videos above, it’s best to remain calm and to find cover as soon as possible. If you’re driving, pull over and wait for the storm to pass.

“If I was driving, I would pull over and wait for it to pass and definitely turn the car ventilation to re-circulation,” Paul recommended. “At home, you should try to seal doors and windows — the traditional method is to use wet towels — and you could try to create positive pressure inside the house if you have an air conditioner.”

If dust continues to linger after the storm has passed, take extra precautions and slip on a P2-rated mask to avoid breathing in harmful particles.

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