Dust storm in Australia

Even from space, dust storms are visible along the Australian coast on Sept. 23, 2009. This image was captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on the Terra satellite owned by NASA.

Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team/NASA

Living with Dust Storms

Co-existing with dust storms can be summarized in three words: prevention, preparation and prediction. In areas where human activity has created dust sources, restoration and preservation of dry land ecosystems has been shown to reduce the number of storms that ravage farmlands. This can be done by changing farming practices, such as reducing tillage frequency to lower disruption of the soil; planting cover crops, such as grass, to prevent erosion; and planting rows of shrubs and/or trees to reduce the impact of wind forces as they move in.

For those who live in areas where seasonal dust storms are unavoidable, preparation is the best way to prevent loss of property and preserve health. Covering computers and machinery with plastic or tarp keeps dust from destroying the electrical components and clogging mechanical parts. Military personnel based in deserts even wrap up helicopters during dust storms. Having goggles and a mask on hand means once the dust starts flying, you can keep it out of your eyes, mouth and nose.

Predicting dust storms obviously helps people to be better prepared, and forecasting large -scale storms is pretty reliable. The methods meteorologists use to do this largely depend on carefully monitoring winds and atmospheric stability in areas known to be prone to dust storms. Scientists have even developed computer models that take weather forecasts and combine them with data from storm research to predict dust storms with reasonable success -- meteorologists can sometimes even predict the size and duration of the storms.

Haboobs are more difficult to forecast. Meteorologists are forced to rely on what's called "real time" forecasting of thunderstorm activity where the environment may be ripe for a dust storm. As you can guess, it's difficult for them to say whether or not a storm will kick up, but at least you can be on the lookout. Also, using data collected by satellites, scientists have developed ways to determine soil moisture and availability in arid regions. This helps assess the likelihood that a haboob may occur when thunderstorms sweep through certain areas.

If you're interested in learning more about dust storms and related phenomena, blow over to the next page for more information.