In arid regions around the world, dust and sand storms are common. They typically wreak havoc with air traffic, as well as with life on the ground. In severe cases of dust storms there is near-zero visibility on the ground.
Why should I be aware of this?
- The dust created by the storm is a vital nutrient that helps sustain marine ecosystems, but can also trigger toxic blooms of algae, like red tides, that kill fish and damage corals.
- Dust storms can form mile-high waves that engulf cities, affect animals and carry pollution and diseases across oceans and around the planet. It can also counteract some aspects of global warming.
Dust storms and health
Dust storms may have adverse effects on health, particularly for people who already have breathing-related problems. Dust particles vary in size from coarse (non-inhalable), to fine (inhalable), to very fine (respirable).
While coarse particles only reach as far as the inside of the nose, mouth or throat, the finer particles can get much deeper into the sensitive regions of the respiratory tract and lungs and can cause serious harm to your health. These especially affect people with pre-existing breathing-related problems, such as asthma and emphysema, may experience difficulties.
The most common symptoms experienced during a dust storm are irritation to the eyes and upper airways. People who may be more vulnerable than others are:
- infants, children and adolescents
- the elderly
- people with respiratory conditions, such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema
- people with heart disease
- people with diabetes
Exposure to dust storm may:
- trigger allergic reactions and asthma attacks
- cause serious breathing-related problems
- contribute to cardiovascular or heart disease
- contribute to reduced life span.
Prolonged exposure to airborne dust can lead to chronic breathing and lung problems, and possibly heart disease.
All about dust storms
Dust storms are caused by strong winds blowing over loose soil or sand, and picking up so much of that material that visibility is reduced. In desert regions at certain times of the year, sand storms become more frequent because the strong heating of the air over the desert causes the lower atmosphere to become unstable. This instability mixes higher winds in the middle troposphere downward, producing stronger winds at the surface.
Can spread over hundreds of miles
When storms are severe, dust particles stay in the air for a week or longer and can be blown thousands of miles away. Dust from the Sahara desert is always blown across the Atlantic causing bright red sunrises and sunsets in Miami. From there the dust keeps traveling as far as the Caribbean and the Amazon basin.
A dust storm carries fine particles like silt, clay, dust and other materials which can spread over hundreds of miles and rise over 10,000 feet (305 meters). They also have wind speeds of at least 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers).
Affects ocean temperature
Every year, storms over West Africa disturb millions of tons of dust and strong winds carry those particles into the skies over the Atlantic. According to a recent study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison atmospheric scientists, this dust from Africa directly affects ocean temperature, a key ingredient in Atlantic hurricane development. 
At least one third of the recent increase in Atlantic Ocean temperatures is due to a decrease in dust storms
Stimulates production of plankton blooms
Scientists studying the dust storm in Sahara desert have discovered that the quantity of dust involved in the storms, about 500 million tonnes per year, is sufficient to affect the climate. By partly absorbing and partly reflecting sunlight, the dust particles heat the air but cool the ocean surface. They also encourage cloud formation, which reinforces the reflection of light back into space.
Wind-blown dust from the Sahara desert plays a crucial role in fertilizing large areas of the Atlantic Ocean. The delivery of nutrients, and some metals common on land but scarce in the open ocean, stimulates the Scientists studying the dust storm in Sahara desert have discovered that the quantity of dust involved in the storms, about 500 million tonnes per year, is sufficient to affect the climate. By partly absorbing and partly reflecting sunlight, the dust particles heat the air but cool the ocean surface. They also encourage cloud formation, which reinforces the reflection of light back into space.
Wind-blown dust from the Sahara desert plays a crucial role in fertilizing large areas of the Atlantic Ocean. The delivery of nutrients, and some metals common on land but scarce in the open ocean, stimulates the production of massive plankton blooms.  .
What can I do?
The following precautions can help you protect yourself and minimize the adverse effects of a dust storm:
- Avoid outdoor activity. Even if you have to go out, spend as little time as possible.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a mask or damp cloth to reduce exposure to dust particles.
- Avoid vigorous exercise, especially if you have asthma, diabetes or a breathing-related condition.
- Stay indoors, with windows and doors closed.
- Stay in air-conditioned premises, if possible.
As visibility deteriorates during a dust storm, it affects your ability to drive safely. Therefore reduce your speed. Be prepared to pull off the road if visibility deteriorates to less than 100m. If your car is air-conditioned, reduce the amount of dust entering your car by switching the air intake to 'recirculate'.
Wearing a mask
Ordinary paper dust masks, handkerchiefs or bandannas do not filter out fine particles from dust and therefore are generally not very useful in protecting your lungs. Before deciding to wear a mask you should consider the following:
- They can be hot and uncomfortable to wear
- If the seal around the face and mouth is poor (e.g. men with beards cannot get a good seal), the mask is much less effective
- The masks do not filter out gases such as carbon monoxide
- They can make it harder for you to breathe normally, so anyone with a pre-existing heart or lung condition should seek medical advice before using them, and
- It is often better to stay indoors, away from the dust unless you cannot avoid working outdoors.
Dust Tsunami videos
See Dust Tsunami Videos: Past, Present, Future
- Dust Tsunamis
- Dust Storm on the Loose
- Dust storms